Mapping the paths with Instituto Cervantes

Drawing parallels between medieval pilgrimage routes through religious art

One of the more edifying exhibitions on view this month is Mapping the paths, an assiduously researched and beautifully executed display of artistic and religious parallels between ancient pilgrimage routes in northwestern China and Iberian Europe.

The Buddhist art and architecture of Dunhuang, Gansu province, and masterpieces of Romanesque fresco and codex art from various sites in Spain offer the viewer a deep, sombre trip through turbulent periods of world history, especially interesting at a time when China is renewing trade and cultural partnerships via its so-called New Silk Road infrastructure building initiative.

We've selected a few images from the exhibit – hosted by Instituto Cervantes in Beijing, in collaboration with the Confucius Institute in Madrid and the Dunhuang Research Academy – to showcase unexpected and revealing artistic and historical analogies connecting these two very different cultural pathways.

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Mogao caves, Dunhuang, Gansu

The art of Dunhuang is mostly situated within a system of 492 grottoes known as the Mogao Caves. Dunhuang is located near an oasis amid the vast, dry expanses of the Gobi Desert in northwestern Gansu. The Mogao caves were first carved out for religious use in the 4th century AD, and subsequently hosted over a millennium of artistic and ritual practice, facilitated by the oasis' strategically important location along the Silk Road trade route.

The Romanesque art and architecture of medieval Europe, stretching from roughly 1000 AD through the 13th century, is scattered among churches and basilicas along the Camino de Santiago, a network of pilgrimage routes culminating in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. This church, Sant Climent de Taüll, is known for its vivid, polychromatic fresco paintings.

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Sant Climent de Taüll, Catalonia

Both Buddhist and Christian art depict graphic scenes of earthly temptation befalling their patron deities in the moments before ascending to the realm of the divine. In this mural from Mogao Cave #254, Siddhartha Gautama, while meditating beneath the bodhi tree, is confronted by the demon Mara. Mara attempts to lure Siddhartha from his path to enlightenment, first sending his beautiful daughters to seduce him, and later sending an army of monsters for an all-out assault.

A similar theme is depicted in this fresco, located in the Hermitage of San Baudelio de Berlanga. This detail in particular depicts three scenes from the temptation of Christ, in which the Devil defies Jesus to turn stone to bread and to leap from a building without harming himself. In a desperate final attempt, the Devil tries to bargain with a heavenly angel for Christ's devotion.

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Left: The temptation of Buddha by Mara, Mogao Cave #254, ca 439-535 AD
Right: The temptation of Christ by the Devil, Hermitage of San Baudelio de Berlanga, ca 1129-34

According to the Buddhist narrative, Siddhartha achieves the state of total enlightenment after rebuffing Mara's advances. He is finally released from the earthly cycles of suffering and rebirth at the moment of his death, when he passes into parinirvana. This sculpture from Mogao Grotto #148 – one of the iconic images from Dunhuang – depicts this moment.

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Parinirvana of Buddha, Mogao Grotto #148, ca 781-848 AD

Jesus, after being crucified, is believed to rise from the dead and subsequently ascend to heaven, where he rules as king. This fresco covers the apse of Sant Climent de Taüll, and is considered one of the masterworks of Romanesque art. Its theme of theophany – the vision of God – draws largely from the Book of Revelation for its iconographic material.

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Apse, Sant Climent de Taüll, ca 1123 AD

Of course, these amazing artworks ultimately existed to facilitate one primary function: worship. The murals of Mogao Cave #285 depict 35 monks meditating in individual caves, and the room itself contains four meditation cells on its north and south walls. The iconography of these murals gives clear evidence of a fusion of Chinese, Indian, and Central Asian themes, facilitated by the flow of objects and ideas along the Silk Road.

The Basilica of San Isidoro was built on the site of ancient Roman ruins in the city of León in northwestern Spain. This particular room, the Royal Pantheon, is a funeral chapel housing the interred remains of eleven kings of León. Like Mogao Cave #285, its art and architecture index successive periods of cultural diffusion, combining Romanesque, Gothic, and Islamic influences.

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Left: Mogao Grotto #285, 538 AD Right: Royal Pantheon, Basilica of San Isidoro, Léon, ca 1063 AD

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