Skip to main content

North American Silk Road Collections: A Kizil fragment in the Detroit Institute of Arts

By Miki Morita 2 December 2016

It is with great pleasure that I announce that the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and the IDP have finalized an agreement to include a Buddhist mural painting fragment from the DIA in the IDP database. This will go onto the new IDP website when it becomes lives in 2017. Before this, I would like to introduce this beautiful piece which happens to be one of the Le Coq pieces from the Kizil caves featured in my previous blog post.

The Detroit Institute of Arts was founded in 1885 in Detroit, Michigan, the city known for its auto industry. Since then, the DIA served for the cultural development of this industrial city, boasting one of the top collections in the United States. Its multicultural and multinational collection contains a diverse range of Asian art, including a mural fragment from the Kizil Caves.

Section of a mural, very fragmentary, in which four faces can be made out.
Four Heads of Buddhist Divinities, 28.67 © Detroit Institute of Arts

This mural fragment consists of four heads of Buddhist deities, three facing to their right in a three-quarter view and one similarly to the left. It is clear that the fragment was once a part of a larger composition covering the wall of a Kizil cave. Based on its back inscription and stylistic similarity with other fragments and murals in situ, this piece is considered to originate from Cave 224 (Mâyâhöhle, 3. Anlage).

Cave 224 is a type of central pillar cave in the Kizil Caves, in which a circumambulatory corridor excavated in the rear part of the main room creates a square, pillar-like structure which also doubled as an altar for the Buddha’s statue. The DIA’s fragment is considered to belong to one of the side walls of the space in front of this pillar (Ueno 1980, 56). In this type of caves, the preaching scenes of the Buddha were often depicted on these side walls of the front space, and so were those in Cave 224. While the exact location of the DIA piece on the walls await further investigation, the four figures on the mural fragment are most likely attendants of more major figures, most likely the Buddha on the side walls.

Cave interior with man sitting in a doorway.
Interior of a central pillar cave with wall paintings of preaching scenes and A. Grünwedel at work,
B 1739 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Asiatische Kunst

These and other attending figures appearing on many mural fragments preserved in North American collections are rather anonymous in many cases, yet they are indispensable and invaluable as cultural remains. This is not only because of the overall low number of remaining murals from cave shrines, but also because of visual narratives according to which the space for prayer was constructed inside caves. In the case of Kizil Cave 224, scenes based on the Buddha’s past and present life events and preachings adorned most part of the interior walls including the ceiling, and also Maitreya, the future Buddha, was depicted in the guise of Bodhisattva in the Tuṣita Heaven on a lunette above the main room’s exit. After moving from the antechamber to the main room of the cave, visitors were first greeted by a now-lost statue of the Buddha in the niche of the column, then went through the corridor where they saw the scenes of the Buddha’s Great Extinction (parinirvāṇa) on the rear wall of the cave. Following the scenes of events after the Buddha’s departure, such as cremation and division of his relics, the visitors encounter Maitreya in the Tuṣita Heaven above the exit.

As Buddhists revered the statue of the Buddha and circumambulated the pillar, they traveled through the space in devotion to the Buddha and Buddhist teachings, where axes of past, present and future time cross. Attendant figures on mural fragments of the DIA certainly contributed to the orchestration of this devotional space.


Digital Silk Road Project, National Institute of Informatics. 2016. “Database for Buddhist Cave Temples in China.” Accessed November 28.

Miyaji Akira. 1992. Nehan to Miroku no zuzōgaku: Indo kara Chūō Ajia e 涅槃と弥勒の図像学: インドから中央アジアへ [Iconography of parinirvānạ and Maitreya : from India to Central Asia]. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan.

Ueno Aki 上野アキ. 1980. “Kijiru dai san ku maya dō hekiga seppō zu – jō: Ru・Kokku shūshū saiiki hekiga chōsa, 2” キジル第三区マヤ洞壁画説法図—上: ル・コック収集西域壁画調査 2 [Mural paintings of preaching scenes in Māyāhöhle, 3. Anlage, first part: Research on the mural paintings from the Western Regions collected by Le Coq, 2]. Bijutsu kenkyū 美術研究 [Journal of Art Studies] 312 (February):48–61.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Detroit Institute of Arts, Dr. Birgitta Augustine (former curator of the Arts of Asia and the Islamic World of the DIA), and Ms. Susan Higman Larsen for their support for the Georgetown-IDP project.


If you have feedback or ideas about this post, contact us, sign in or register an account to leave a comment below