Majestic sixth-century Chinese Buddhist sculpture is combined with 3-D imaging technology in this exploration of one of the most important groups of Buddhist devotional sites in early medieval China. Carved into the mountains of northern China, the Buddhist cave temples of Xiangtangshan (響堂山, pronounced “shahng-tahng-shahn”) were the crowning cultural achievement of the Northern Qi dynasty (550–77 CE). Once home to a magnificent array of sculptures—monumental Buddhas, divine attendant figures, and crouching monsters framed by floral motifs—the limestone caves were severely damaged in the first half of the twentieth century, when their contents were chiseled away and offered for sale on the international art market.
In Echoes of the Past, ancient sculptural masterpieces are united with a set of innovative digital components, including a video installation that offers an immersive, kinetic re-creation of one of the largest stone temples. Touch screens and research kiosks offer more detailed information about the site and the themes explored in the exhibition.
Carved into the mountains of northern China, the Buddhist cave temples of Xiangtangshan (“Shahng-tahng-shahn”) were the crowning cultural achievement of the Northern Qi (“Chee”) dynasty (550-77). The name Xiangtangshan translates to “Mountain of Echoing Halls.” It refers to two groups of caves: northern Xiangtangshan and southern Xiangtangshan, located about nine miles apart in Hebei province.
Commissioned by devout Buddhist emperors and courtiers, the manmade caves represent the power and prestige of the throne and an eternal appeal for divine protection. They also reflect a long tradition, begun in India, of situating holy places within the earth’s mantle.
Once home to a magnificent array of sculptures, the limestone caves were severely damaged in the early twentieth century when much of their contents were chiseled away and offered for sale on the international art market. In 2003, the Xiangtangshan research team of the Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago began an intensive documentation project on the caves and their removed sculptures. Like the exhibition Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan, on view at the Sackler Gallery from February 26–July 31, 2011, and a publication with the same title, this feature shares the results of that research. Using 3-D imaging, the team was able to digitally match fragments to their original locations, making it possible to envision some of the caves as they appeared before their tragic despoliation.