The Cave as Canvas: Hidden Images of Worship along the Silk Road

To coincide with the latter part of the Silk Road Festival in Washington, DC during the summer of 2002, the Sackler Gallery presented an exhibition of Central Asian Buddhist murals. This exhibition presented a group of fifteen 5th-century wall-painting fragments from the great Buddhist cave site of Qizil (also spelled Kizil) in what is now the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang. These intriguing and rarely seen examples of Buddhist mural painting are used to examine the religious meaning and function of a typical Chinese Central Asian Buddhist cave.

The exhibition also explored the interdependent nature of the art and architectural design of these lavishly decorated cave temples. Adopted from India, the practice of excavating Buddhist caves dates back in this region to at least the third century AD. Rock cut cave temples represent one of the largest groups of monuments from medieval Chinese Central Asia.