Buddhist Cave Art Preserving Profound Persian and Indian Influences
In the years 1906 and 1913, Albert von Le Coq, as part of the German expedition team, visited the Kizil cave site, in Xinjiang Province China. There, the German archaeologist was astounded by the great beauty of the ultramarine used in the murals decorating the walls. Reminiscent of the rich blue color of the sky, Le Coq described in his expedition diary:
“…the extravagant use of a brilliant blue – the well-known ultramarine which, in the time of Benvenuto Cellini[a], was frequently employed by the Italian painters, and was bought at double its weight in gold.”[b]
Derived from the mineral lapis lazuli, ultramarine comes from stones said only to have been mined in
Afghanistan. The word “lapis lazuli” is a combination of the Latin word “lapis” (meaning “stone”), and the Arabic word “lazuli” (meaning “sky” or “blue”). Transported over long distances (from the area around present day Afghanistan), it was the abundant use of this pigment, deemed highly precious throughout history, which so stunned Le Coq.
In addition to the rich use of ultramarine, Le Coq was also surprised by the fact that “there was … not the slightest sign in the paintings of any East Asiatic influences.[b]”Despite its geographic proximity to China, the Buddhist art preserved in the Kizil grottoes showed a perplexing lack of Chinese elements; displaying instead more Indian and Persian (Iranian) influence. For instance, frieze murals(1) found at the time of excavation to the right and left of the great podiums showed a clear Persian (Sasanian 226-651) influence, as reflected in two Sasanian ducks with jeweled necklaces in their beaks which were drawn facing one-another within pearl-shaped medallions.
Many such works created in the Indian or Persian style (displaying the artistic conventions of late antiquity) were to be found among the Buddhist art of the caves. Le Coq was deeply impressed with the art he found at Kizil, describing the murals in his diary as the “most interesting, and artistically perfect paintings.”[b]
The Sasanian Empire (226-651), whose artistic conventions so influenced the murals, ruled a vast area covering the Iranian Plateau and Mesopotamia; and at its peak, extended its rule as far as Afghanistan. The cave murals found at Kizil displayed a strong influence of the art of the Sasanian Persians as well as that of India. This was particularly seen in addition to the Persian artistic conventions, in the abundant use of Afghanistan lapis lazuli.
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