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Fragment - The Stein Collection

The Stein Collection

  • Object:

    Fragment

  • Place of origin:

    Dunhuang (discovered)

  • Date:

    9th century to 10th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Silk gauze and plain-woven silk, embroidered

  • Credit Line:

    Stein Textile Loan Collection. On loan from the Government of India and the Archaeological Survey of India

  • Museum number:

    LOAN:STEIN.525

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This textile was brought back from Central Asia by the explorer and archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943). It was recovered from Cave 17 of the Mogao Grottoes. This shrine site is one of China’s great Buddhist pilgrimage locations and is situated near the oasis town of Dunhuang. The shrines were carved out of the gravel conglomerate naturally occurring in the region. The insides of each cave-shrine were painted with coloured murals, some of which survive to this day. By the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD), from which this textile dates, there were a thousand caves decorated with religious scenes.

The Cave of the Thousand Buddhas, of which there are several in the area, is named after a legend concerning a monk’s dream of a thousand Buddhas appearing on a cloud to one side of the valley where the caves are situated. Most of the textiles from this site would have been used as banners or wrappers for religious texts. The site is also part of an area of Central Asia we now call the Silk Road. This term was first used by the German scholar Ferdinand von Ricthofen (1833-1905) and it refers to a series of overland trade routes that crossed Asia from China to Europe. The most notable item traded was silk. Camels and horses were used as pack animals and merchants passed the goods from oasis to oasis. The Silk Road was also important for the exchange of ideas. While silk textiles travelled west from China, Buddhism entered China from India in this way.

Physical description

Monochrome blue gauze weave, backed with plain weave blue silk, embroidered with flowers in different coloured silk thread. There are the remnants of stitching and pale orange fabric attached.

Weave structures:
1. Gauze with lozenge pattern
Warp: silk, single, blue, 72 warps/cm; Weft: silk, single, blue, 19 wefts/cm. Weave structure: 2-end complex gauze for pattern on 4-end complex gauze for foundation
2. Silk in plain weave
Warp: silk, single, blue, 59 warps/cm; Weft: silk, single, blue, 43 wefts/cm. Weave structure: 1/1 plain weave
3. Silk in plain weave
Warp: silk, single, orange, 48 warps/cm; Weft: silk, single, orange, 39 wefts/cm. Weave structure: 1/1 plain weave

Place of Origin

Dunhuang (discovered)

Date

9th century to 10th century (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Silk gauze and plain-woven silk, embroidered

Dimensions

Length: 102 cm, Width: 28 cm

Historical context note

Dunhuang is at the eastern end of the southern Silk Road, in present-day Gansu Province. It lies between the western reaches of China and the Tarim Basin. When China began to expand into Central Asia during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Dunhuang served as a base for military operations and trade. In the succeeding centuries, Buddhist shrines were established southeast of Dunhuang in a series of man-made caves called Qianfodong, "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas" (today also known as the Mogao Grottoes). Here spectacular cave temples were cut out of the cliffs, beginning in the fourth century AD. Over a period of several centuries, communities of Buddhist monks filled the caves with splendid sculpture and wall paintings. These included colossal Buddha statues, painted clay sculptures of deities, elaborate murals of Buddhist legends, and thousands of tiny painted Buddha images; all of which gave the site its name, Qianfodong. Buddhist cave temples had first been established in at Bamiyan (Afghanistan) and Gandhara (formerly in India, now Pakistan). At Qianfodong, Stein found paintings of graceful figures in the Gandharan style among landscapes and buildings that were distinctly Chinese; a fusion of Indian and Chinese art, which he had noted elsewhere along the Silk Road.

In 1900, a Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered a secret cave at Qianfodung, which contained thousands of documents and paintings. Stein purchased a significant amount of this material from Wang during his visit to the Dunhuang in 1907. Among the many religious works were Buddhist, Jewish, Nestorian, Daoist and Confucian texts; all of which dated from approximately 400 to 1000 A.D. Numerous languages were represented as well, including Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Hebrew. Stein also acquired many textile pieces. Most of these were silk, for Dunhuang lay on the main trade route between silk-growing regions of China and Central Asia. Elaborate embroideries depicted Buddhist legends and processions of donors. Patterned silks included Chinese and Sassanian (Persian) designs. From China came floral and geometric patterns, combined with figures of animals and birds. Sassanian motifs included pairs of confronted ducks, lions, and other beasts, combined with medallions and quatrefoils. Stein also found undecorated silks used as processional banners and valances for decorating bases of statues. The cave was sealed soon after 1000 A.D., apparently to protect the contents from invading armies. The V&A holds, on loan, a large number of textiles from Dunhuang, including plain and pattern woven silks in many colours, painted Buddhist banners and canopies, and wrappers for Buddhist texts.

Descriptive line

Piece of embroidered blue gauze and plain weave silk

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Stein, Aurel, Serindia: Detailed Report of Exploration in Central Asia and Westernmost China Carried Out and Described Under the Orders of H.M Indian Government , 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921), II, p.986.
Zhao Feng, ed. Textiles from Dunhuang in UK Collections. Shanghai: Donghua University Press, 2007. pp. 293.

Production Note

Found in Cave 17 of the Mogao Grottoes (Caves of the Thousand Buddhas).

Materials

Silk; Silk thread

Techniques

Gauze weave; Plain weave; Embroidering; Stitching

Categories

Archaeology; Textiles

Collection

East Asia Collection

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