In 2004 a new collaborative research and digital imaging project was launched to reassess the art of the Buddhist cave temples of Xiangtangshan in northern China with reference to the art and visual culture of the Northern Qi dynasty (550-577). 'The Xiangtangshan Caves Project: Reconstruction and Recontextualisation' is both conceptual and digital, making use of traditional sources, archaeological finds in China, objects outside China, and new technology, of 3D imaging. The caves are extensively damaged, in large part through looting in the early 20th century, when many of their fine sculptures were sold in the international art market. Therefore a major component of the project is the reconstruction of their former appearance. This is especially challenging for the reason that no photographs are known to exist of the caves before their despoiliation began. The earliest known, from the 1920s, already show repairs and replacements. The project's research imaging team, based at the Center for the Art of East Asia in the Department of Art History, University of Chicago, has established and is developing a database of visual resources from the cave sites inside China and from museums and private collections outside China. About 80 sculptures and sculptural fragments located outside China believed to be from the caves have been identified, photographed and scanned. The search for the missing sculptures continues. This summer the Center will collaborate with Peking University, and the Fengfeng Office for the Protection and Management of Cultural Properties to undertake 3D imaging of the caves. Together with the digital images, the sculptures from these caves and other examples of the art of this brief but culturally flourishing period will be the focus of a future exhibition and international conference. (1) This article presents some of the project's new finds and ongoing research.
The North Cave is the largest of the Buddhist cave shrines of Xiangtangshan and dominates the northern sector of the Northern or Bei Xiangtangshan site at Gushan, or Drum Mountain, in present day Fengfeng mining district, southern Hebei province (Fig. 1). It is one of three limestone caves on the mountainside made with imperial support during the Northern Qi period (550-577). Popularly known as the 'Great Buddha Cave', it is the most lavishly carved and complex in design.
The 6th century was a transformational period in Chinese history and the history of Buddhism in China. The official sponsorship of Buddhism that included the building of monasteries and places of worship, the support of sutra translation and the hiring of Buddhist teachers as royal preceptors had raised the understanding of this foreign religion to an unprecedented level. It was a time of widespread growth of popular faith and proliferation of image-making. In the 1st and 2nd centuries AD after Buddhism was first introduced to China, it appears to have been practised largely by foreigners and to have spread slowly. More rapid growth began after the fall of the Han empire in 220, a time of great political and social instability and foreign incursions.
In the 4th...