The Mogao cave temples of Dunhuang have been shaped by more than the artists and builders who crafted the site over the course of a thousand years—the environment itself has played a vital role. After several decades of research and conservation work carried out by the Dunhuang Academy in collaboration with the Getty Conservation Institute and others, we now have a greater understanding of how the natural setting and local climate—from the wind and the desert sand to the water sources nearby—influenced the design of the cave temples and their paintings.

Not only is this knowledge critical to developing strategies for preserving and managing the grottoes today, it also prompts art and architectural historians to study the history of the cave temples in connection with their broader ecological environment. What does an earth-centered approach to the art of Dunhuang look like?

A Desert Oasis

The overall configuration of the Mogao Grottoes is key to understanding the relationship between its art and environment. Nearly five hundred extant caves are distributed over a half-mile along the same cliff face in the southern tip of the Sanwei Mountains. The heavy concentration of cave-building activity in this relatively limited area from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries underscores the remarkable allure that the place held for the local community.

Aerial view of the Mogao Grottoes, looking west, showing desert and snow-capped mountains in the far distance

Aerial view of the Mogao Grottoes showing the location of the cave temples in the cliff face. Poplar and conifer trees provide shade for the site. Beyond the sandy expanse above the cliff rise the dunes known as the Mingsha Shan, capped with snow. Courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy. Photo: Sun Zhijun

In material terms, the rock structure is the same for most of the temples, and the general climate is consistent throughout the site. Composed of conglomerate, a soft rock, the cliff was easily excavated with hammers and chisels, and the cave temple walls were plastered with sand, hemp fiber, and mud from the nearby Daquan riverbed before being painted. Despite working in the same location, different generations of builders and painters dealt with these existing environmental conditions in disparate ways.

When the site was first established, artisans focused on finding appropriate materials and techniques to create an enduring work of art. Their concerns changed considerably in the ensuing years with the planning of new additions. Largely due to financial and time constraints, these later craftsmen did not reinvent the site but rather adapted new caves to the existing configuration.

When all the available cliff surfaces ran out in the tenth century, however, the need to reconfigure the site anew arose. Builders added many monumental cave temples by consolidating older units into one location, and they consulted the work of their predecessors while carrying out this renovation. Their awareness of Dunhuang’s history of construction and adaptation enabled them to better respond to the immediate environmental pressures.

Interior of Cave 275 showing the sand and mud walls covered with pigment

The walls of the excavated cave temples were plastered with sand, hemp fiber, and mud, then painted. Interior wall of Cave 275, Northern Liang dynasty (420–429 CE). Courtesy the Dunhuang Academy

Flora and Fauna

Wall painting from the Mogao caves showing topography and vegetation

Greenery abounds in this landscape illustrating the Maitreya Sutra. Detail, north wall, Yulin Cave 25. Late eighth–early ninth century. Courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy

In addition to the physical setting, the mural paintings inside the cave temples at Mogao offer ways to chart the shifting ecology of the area. Take, for example, representations of plants and animals. These paintings could be a source of information regarding environmental changes over time. Although most of the scenes depicted at Mogao pertain to imaginary realms populated with Buddhist deities of all sorts, local painters often imbued these religious scenes with a touch of reality from their own earthly lives.

Indeed, plants and animals were often rendered with such remarkable accuracy that it’s possible to identify the individual species. By tracking when certain flora and fauna became prevalent subjects in Dunhuang paintings or disappeared from the artistic repertoire, researchers can infer whether climate changes contributed to the growth or decline of certain types of ecological life in the region.

Over the course of a millennium, environmental factors in this desert oasis shaped the very configuration and appearance of the Dunhuang cave temples, and the discovery and study of these natural influences is now more accessible than ever.

This post is part of the series Cave Temples of Dunhuang, featuring stories inspired by the exhibition Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road.
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