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North American Silk Road Collections: A Mañjuśrī’s prayer sheet from Dunhuang in the Cincinnati Art Museum

By Miki Morita 27 January 2017

In this blog post, I would like to introduce the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Prayer Sheet (1992.139) from Dunhuang, which is an important comparative piece to similar prayer sheets in other collections. The Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), one of the oldest arts institutions in the United States, was founded with the goal to bring a public art museum to the area for the benefit of all citizens during the years following the 1876 Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia. The CAM’s diverse, encyclopaedic art collection spanning 6,000 years, includes a prayer sheet from Dunhuang that documents an aspect of rich religious culture of the region around the tenth century.

This print was purchased by the CAM, yet was reportedly collected by Paul Pelliot. The rectangular sheet consists of two parts: an image of a Buddhist deity and text. The upper portion mainly contains figures of Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva, the bodhisattva of wisdom, seated on a lion, a man who is holding reins of the lion, and a boy who is revering the bodhisattva with his hands joined in prayer. A similar painting of Mañjuśrī in Mogao Cave 220, facing front on the lion mount and with these two attendants, is dated to 925 and called the ‘new-style’ Mañjuśrī (xinyang Wenshu) based on its inscription. The boy is Sudhana, whose spiritual journey begins from his encounter with Mañjuśrī in the final chapter of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra. The man’s heavily bearded face and clothes suggest his non-Han ethnic origin, and indeed, this figure is usually identified as the king of Khotan, a Central Asian kingdom.

Paper prayer sheet with an illustration on the top half and Chinese writing below.
Mañjuśrī’s prayer sheet, 1992.139 © Cincinnati Art Museum

The text in the lower portion advocates devotion to Mañjuśrī, describing the efficacy of the bodhisattva and providing the verbal incantations of Mañjuśrī. The cult of Mañjuśrī as a resident bodhisattva of Mt. Wutai in Shanxi Province flourished in the Tang dynasty and persisted throughout history. The bodhisattva’s great popularity reached remote Dunhuang. Extant Dunhuang paintings and prints reflect a rich variety of Mañjuśrī’s cult. In Dunhuang Buddhist art, Mañjuśrī was frequently paired with Vimalakīrti and Samantabhadra, and Mañjuśrī in the thousand-armed form was depicted with the Thousand-armed Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin). (Wang 2016)

Different variations of Mañjuśrī’s prayer sheets survived among the Dunhuang Buddhist art. For example, a group of Mañjuśrī prayer sheets can be distinguished by the complete halo of the bodhisattva and a missing stroke in the character xiang 相 in the third line of the text (added by hand in many cases). In another group of sheets, to which the CAM print belongs, the halo is truncated at the top and the character xiang is complete. Other overall differences between these two groups include the extant number of prints, the quality of printing, and the size and types of paper. (Kikutake 1975, 12-13)

Paper prayer sheet, dingier than the previous example, similarly with image on top half and writing below.
Mañjuśrī’s prayer sheet with a complete halo, Pelliot chinois 4514 (2)21
© Bibliothèque nationale de France (click to zoom in)

A number of extant pieces inform us of the variety in the usage of Mañjuśrī prayer sheets in worship. Some sheets have holes in the four corners, most likely for mounting on a wall, and another example has a silk loop at the top for hanging. One intriguing example is a large sheet with four prayer sheets pasted on its surface. The sheet was completed with a painting of a seated Buddha and an invocation to the “Buddha of Heavenly Radiance” (南无天光明佛) at the centre.

Large piece of paper with four prayer sheets pasted on to it. A picture of a seated Buddha with painted orange halo has been drawn in the centre.
Woodblock print with four impressions of Mañjuśrī, 1919,0101,0.239 (Ch.00204) © The British Museum

The Mañjuśrī’s prayer sheet was also combined with those of other Buddhist deities, including Amitābha Buddha and Avalokiteśvara. Such variations in the arrangement of Mañjuśrī’s prayer sheets also reflect the rich variety in the cult of this bodhisattva in Dunhuang.


Avril, Ellen B., and Nora Ling-yün Shih, eds. 1997. Chinese art in the Cincinnati Art Museum. Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum.

Kikutake Jun’ichi 菊竹淳一. 1975. “Tonkō no bukkyō hanga – Daiei hakubutsukan to Pari kokuritsu toshokan shūzōhin o chūshin ni” 敦煌の仏教版画 ―大英博物館とパリ国立図書館収蔵品を中心に [Buddhist Prints from Dunhuang: Pieces in The Collections of The British Library and The Biliothèque Nationale de France]. Bukkyō Geijutsu 仏教芸術 [Ars Buddhica] 101: 3-35.

Nakata Mie 中田美繪. 2009. “Godaisan Monju shinkō to ōken – Tōdai Daisō ki ni okeru Kinkakuji shūchiku no bunseki o tsūjite – .” 五臺山文殊信仰と王權―唐代代宗期における金閣寺修築の分析を通じて― [The Mañjuśrī cult on Wu-t’ai-shan and kingship: through an analysis of the reconstruction of Chin-ko-ssu during the reign of Tai-tsung in the T’ang]. Tōhōgaku [Eastern Studies] 117: 40-58.

Sha Wutian 沙武田. 2005. “Dunhuang P.4049 ‘xinyang Wenshu’huagao ji xiangguan wenti yanjiu” 敦煌P.4049“新样文殊”画稿及相关问题研究 [A Study of P.4049: A Draft of Drawing Demonstration for a New Styled Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva and Other Relative Questions]. Dunhuang Yanjiu 敦煌研究 [Dunhuang Research] 2005(3): 26-32.

Sun Xiaogang 孙晓岗. 2007. Wenshu pusa tuxiang xue yanjiu 文殊菩萨图像学研究 [A Bodhisattva of Wisdom: Iconography Study]. Lanzhou: Gansu renmin chubanshe.

Tsiang, Katherine R. 2010. “Buddhist Printed Images and Texts of the Eighth-tenth centuries: Typologies of Replication and Representation.” In Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang, edited by Matthew Kapstein and Sam Van Schaik, 201-252. Leiden: Brill.

Wang, Michelle C. 2016. “The Thousand-armed Mañjuśrī at Dunhuang and Paired Images in Buddhist Visual Culture.” Archives of Asian Art 66(1): 81-105.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Cincinnati Museum of Art, Dr. Hou-mei Sung, and Mr. Robert Deslongchamps for their support for the Georgetown-IDP project.


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