Head of Buddha, Tang Dynasty (618-906)


Published March 2020

Head of Buddha, Tang Dynasty (618-906), early 8th century. Chinese, Tianlongshan caves, near Taiyuan Shanxi Province. Sandstone. Purchased through the gift of Henry and Walter Keney, 1951.95

This head once graced a larger-than-life-size seated figure of Buddha from Cave 14 at Tianlongshan (Heavenly Dragon Mountain) in Shanxi province, China. Carved in place in the back wall of the cave temple, the sculpture was flanked by six attendant bodhisattvas (enlightened beings). The stylized head includes the Buddha’s characteristic features: short curled hair; the ushnisha, or protuberance atop the head that symbolizes the expanded wisdom that the Buddha gained at his enlightenment; and elongated earlobes reminding us that he was once a prince who wore much jewelry, including heavy earrings, before he abandoned worldly life in favor of the religious life.

Built between the sixth and ninth centuries, Tianlongshan is the site of twenty-five cave temples that served as places of retreat and meditation for Buddhist monks. Carved into the south-facing side of two sandstone cliffs, the site’s history spans three major Chinese historical periods: the Northern Qi, Sui, and Tang dynasties. Many of the sculptures from within the caves were removed and dispersed in the early twentieth century. Fortunately, photographs taken in the 1920s, when the sculptures were still in place, provide scholars the information to digitally reconstruct these remarkable Buddhist sanctuaries. Over one hundred figures and sculptural fragments from the caves have been located in museums and private collections to date. Though these sculptures are being preserved and displayed, they are now experienced outside of their original historical, spatial, and religious contexts.

The Center for the Art of East Asia in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago initiated the Tianlongshan Caves Project in 2013 to pursue research and digital imaging of the caves and their sculptures. Visit their website for historical images, more information about Cave 14 and the Tianlongshan Caves Project, and to view a 3D model of Head of Buddha.