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Fragment - The Stein Collection

The Stein Collection

  • Object:

    Fragment

  • Place of origin:

    Dunhuang (discovered)

  • Date:

    8th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Embroidered silk

  • Credit Line:

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

  • Museum number:

    LOAN:STEIN.559

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This small round fragment of silk embroidery shows a Buddha head and halo in buff colour. Usnisa, eyes and eyebrows are worked in dark blue silk, while nose and outlines are red. The fragment probably comes from a larger embroidery of unknown use. It was recovered from Cave 17 of the Mogao Grottoes, situated near the oasis town of Dunhuang. This shrine site is one of China’s great Buddhist pilgrimage complexes.

The sites are part of an area of Central Asia we now call the Silk Road, 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. Whilst silk textiles travelled west from China, Buddhism entered China from India in this way.

This textile was brought back from Central Asia by the explorer and archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943). The V&A has around 650 ancient and medieval textiles recovered by Stein at the beginning of the 20th century. Some are silk while others are made from the wool of a variety of different animals.

Physical description

Fragment of silk embroidery on buff silk showing Buddha head with halo in buff colour. Outlines and nose embroidered in red, while usnisa, eyes and eyebrows in dark blue.

Weave structures:
Warp: silk, single, dark brown, uncountable; Weft: silk, single, dark brown, uncountable. Weave structure: 1/1 plain weave
Embroidery: Threads: silk, light S twisted; Colours: blue, red, grayish blue, etc.; silk: Z-2S ply; Colours: light brown; Stitch: split stitch

Place of Origin

Dunhuang (discovered)

Date

8th century (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Embroidered silk

Dimensions

Length: 3.3 cm, Width: 3.8 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

Embroidered Buddha and halo in buff silk, dark blue usnisa, eyes and eyebrows, nose and outlines in red, from Dunhuang, 8th century

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), vol. II, p.1001.
Zhao Feng, ed. Textiles from Dunhuang in UK Collections. Shanghai: Donghua University Press, 2007. pp. 296.

Production Note

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

Materials

Silk thread; Silk

Techniques

Embroidering

Categories

Archaeology; Buddhism; Embroidery; Textiles

Collection

East Asia Collection

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