The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan

Majestic 6th-century Chinese Buddhist sculpture is combined with 21st century 3D-imaging technology in this exploration of one of the most important groups of Buddhist devotional sites in early medieval China. A video installation, touch screens, and research kiosks enable visitors to digitally envision some of the caves as they appeared before their tragic despoliation.

Carved into the mountains of northern China, the Buddhist cave temples of Xiangtangshan (pronounced “shahng-tahng-shahn”) were the crowning cultural achievement of the 6th-century Northern Qi dynasty (550-77 CE). Once home to a magnificent array of sculptures — monumental Buddhas, divine attendant figures, and crouching monsters framed by floral motifs — the limestone caves were severely damaged in the first half of the 20th century, when their contents were chiseled away and offered for sale on the international art market.

During the past six years the caves have become the focus of a research and reconstruction project based at the Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago. Combining cutting-edge 3-D imaging technology with old-fashioned scholarly work, an international team of experts has photographed and scanned the dispersed objects as well as the interior of the caves themselves.

The San Diego Museum of Art’s presentation of Echoes of the Past includes 14 objects from Xiangtangshan and three related Northern Qi works of art. The exhibition juxtaposes dispersed sculptural fragments with a set of media projects including an immersive video installation, a documentary film directed by Judy Hoffman about the present-day environs of the cave sites, and interactive touchscreen labels related to the monumental stone fragments on view.

Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshanis organized by the Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Leon Levy Foundation, the Smart Family Foundation, and the E.Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation.
Still of screen from Digital Cave: close-up view of 3-D reconstruction of missing Buddha head in yellow.