Collection online

Śākyamuni preaching on the Vulture Peak, embroidery

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (object)

    • Śākyamuni preaching on the Vulture Peak, embroidery
  • Description

    The embroidery with the motif of Sakyamuni preaching on the Vulture Peak is a magnificent work executed in split stitch with the embroidery worked through the plain weave and the backing of hemp. Most of the stitches are long, around 0.8-1 cm, and split stitches of this sort are similar to satin stitches, perhaps representing a transitional stage between split stitch and satin stitch.
    The composition of the embroidery consists of a central Buddha figure beneath a blue canopy, flanked by two disciples and two Bodhisattvas on each side. Below are a number of donors. The Buddha stands on a lotus pedestal with his right shoulder uncovered and his right hand extended straight down, while his left holds the hem of his robe, which is the usual posture for Sakyamuni on this occasion. His body is enclosed, to its full height, within an almond-shaped aureole that reaches to just above the nimbus around his head. Behind the mandorla is a rocky surround, representing the Vulture Peak. At the top of the hanging, on either side of the canopy are apsaras and two lions crouch on either side of the lotus pedestal.
    The kneeling donors at the bottom of the hanging are divided into two groups. There are five men at the lower right: one monk, three men wearing modest caps decorated with ribbons which fall down the men's backs and a male servant stands behind them. At the lower left are four seated ladies in high-waisted dresses and shawls or jackets with half sleeves. There is also a small boy beside one lady and a maid standing behind. Most of the embroidered Chinese characters next to the donors can no longer be identified. The central figure of Sakyamuni has escaped damage altogether, while the two Bodhisattvas have suffered only slight damage. The two disciples, partly hidden behind the Bodhisattvas, have suffered the most.


    a. 本色絹
    b. 本色麻布


  • Culture/period

  • Date

    • 8thC
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 241 centimetres
    • Width: 159 centimetres
    • Height: 250 centimetres (Textile on board)
    • Width: 167.5 centimetres (Textile on board)
    • Depth: 2.8 centimetres (Textile on board, including old mount fixing)
  • Inscriptions

      • Inscription Type

      • Inscription Position

        in two cartouches
      • Inscription Language

      • Inscription Comment

        cartouches contain dedicatory inscriptions, no longer legible.
  • Curator's comments

    This is one of the most magnificent of all the compositions found in the hidden library at Dunhuang. As an embroidery it may rank with the Shaka Nyōrai Preaching, of similar size (207×157cm) and also of the eighth century, from the Kanshū-in, now in the Nara National Museum (see Nihon bukkyō bijutsu no genryū, p.254). Other items of embroidery in the Stein Collection at the British Museum are of a decorative character, but this work must have been equal in importance to the finest and largest of the paradise paintings on silk.
    The composition consists of a five-figured Buddha group, over which appears a canopy with apsarasas, and below are a number of donors. The Buddha stands on a lotus pedestal, beneath the blue canopy. His body is enclosed, to its full height, within an almond-shaped aureole that reaches to just above the nimbus around his head. Behind the mandorla is a rocky surround, representing Mt.Grdhrakūta, or the Vulture Peak, at Rājagrha, the scene of the preaching of the Lotus Sutra. The Buddha stands with his right shoulder uncovered and his right hand extended straight down, while his left grasps the hem of his robe, in the usual posture for Sākyamuni on this occasion (see also Vol.1, Pl.22).
    By good fortune and through the care with which the whole embroidery was folded, the central figure of Sākyamuni has escaped damage altogether, while the two Bodhisattvas have suffered only slight losses. It is the two disciples, already partly hidden behind the Bodhisattvas, who have been damaged the worst: as Stein noted in Serindia (Vol.Ⅱ, p.983), these figures fell along the line of folding when the hanging was put away, “and have for the most part been eaten away. ”Enough of the two figures survives, however, to reveal their individual characters and to show that their robes originally just touched the outermost contours of the rocky cliff. The two Bodhisattvas are almost completely visible. They and the disciples stand on lotus pedestals and seen in three-quarter view. As they are placed just in front of and a little below the disciples, the effect of the whole composition is to form a space enclosing the central Buddha, echoing the arrangement that would have been found if the group had been a sculptural one.
    This feeling for space and volume, despite the medium of embroidery in which it must have been especially difficult to achieve, is in itself powerful evidence of a date of execution early in the Tang dynasty when such concerns are characteristic of both sculpture and painting. That there were sculptural models for Sākyamuni on the Vulture Peak, though distant in time and space, is suggested by the presence of this representation in the New Delhi section of the painting of Famous Buddhist Images (see Vol.2, text figure, p.306), where Sākyamuni appears alone, against a rocky background. In that painting, several features indicate that the figure of Sākyamuni reflects, although not at first hand, a sculpture in stone. Like many of the other figures in the Famous Buddhist Images painting, this one is not coloured, but simply represented in ink outline. The mandorla enclosing the figure is straight at the sides and semicircular at the top, where it completely encloses the nimbus; its form and the small seated Buddha visible above Sākyamuni’s right shoulder strongly suggest that the original model was a free-standing stone stele. Only beyond its confines are there long coloured flames, and outside these the rocky forms of the Vulture Peak shaded in ink and some of them coloured. This seems appropriate in a painting which was primarily a record of famous images.
    Among the wall paintings at Dunhuang, the Sākyamuni Preaching on the Vulture Peak, in Cave 332, datable to the early Tang (Chūgoku Sekkutsu, Tonkō Makkōkutsu, Vol.3, Pl.88) is close to the embroidery in scale and composition. The scene is painted on the north face of the pillar behind the main images, in the corridor at the back of the cave. Sākyamuni, clad in a red robe, stands between two Bodhisattvas, Avalokitesvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta. His nimbus and mandorla have a broad edging of flames, and the outlines of cliffs and mountain peaks appear behind. There are no disciples, and three canopies rather than one complete the composition. The colours in the wall painting have suffered a good deal of abrasion and loss, so that a detailed comparison is not possible. As a general impression, however, the figure of Sākyamuni appears somewhat stiffer, the robe pulled up tightly under the right arm, crossing the chest almost horizontally rather than falling gracefully in a single curve from the left shoulder. In both figures the edges of the outer garment are seen to wave (revealing a lining of a different colour) across the chest, around the shoulder and upper left arm and as two wavy edges falling from the gathering in the Buddha’s left hand. The more schematic character of the wall painting can be judged in this last fall, since the waves are juxtaposed and mirror each other exactly, while in the embroidery each pursues its own rhythm, and the differences in the undulations help to reveal the shape of the figure. The schematic character of the wall painting is on the whole closer to the depiction of Sākyamuni in the Famous Buddhist Images painting than to the embroidery: note especially the way in which the upper edge of the robe is brought up close under the right arm, and the stiff waves of the edges of the robe. The same double lines are used, however, in both the silk painting and the embroidery to indicate drapery folds, so all three depictions have points in common. In the embroidery, frequent slight variations in colour enhance the liveliness already present in the initial outlines-each fold is narrowly outlined in blue, always following the underdrawing in ink, which is visible in every place where the threads are broken or missing.
    Turning to the depiction of the facial features in the several figures of this embroidery, we can observe subtle variations here also. The elderly disciple on Buddha’s left has the most vigorous appearance, with blue outlines strongly accenting all the main lines and even outlining his teeth, and used in a regular vertical crosshatching of the eyebrow, indicated on the silk ground beneath by an area of ink wash. The iris of his eye is painted in black ink directly on the silk ground without any overlying embroidery. Of the face of his companion opposite, enough remains to show that he had smooth features: the iris is again rendered in black ink on the silk ground, but the eyebrow above is embroidered with long thin stitches of blue interspersed with others of the pale silvery silk used for the rest of the head, so that the eyebrow appears smooth and delicate. In the Bodhisattvas, the eyebrows are indicated by single blue arcs as are the inner upper edge of the orbit and the almond-shaped contour of the eye. The iris is painted in ink, not on the silk ground beneath, but on the embroidery. The nose is outlined with a single line of stitches once perhaps tinged with red but now faded to a very pale yellow, as have the lips.
    Even greater care was taken with the countenance of the Buddha. His hair is of the deepest indigo, edged in the lighter blue that also outlines the face and models the ears. In the centre of the hair at the base of the usnisa, this same lighter blue frames a small circle of the exposed white silk ground representing a jewel. The slender, finely arched eyebrows are in a lighter shade than the indigo used for the hair. The eyes, outlined in blue, are filled with horizontal rows of chain stitch in a whiter silk than the rest of the face: against this the irises, painted in black ink directly on the silk ground, stand out clearly and indeed seem have been lightly padded from behind so as to appear slightly raised. The edges of the eye orbit, the whole of the nose, the mouth, complemented by associated modelling lines and chin line. Are all in a golden colour. For the rest of the face, the rows of stitches follow both the outer contours and the inner features, thus revealing the whole circle of the orbit merely through the arrangement of the stitches. The dramatic effect of the modelling must originally have been much strengthened by differences of colour: today many of these colours have greatly faded, while the blues of the indigo have remained strong since they were initially created by oxidation.
    Although these subtleties only reveal themselves on close examination, they do account for the extraordinary presence of the figures, and testify to the early date of the whole composition. Only in the early and high Tang do we find such close and constant attention to details that constantly serve to enhance the movement and form of the figures. Details such as the hands of the two Bodhisattvas show great sensitivity: those of the Bodhisattva on Buddha’s right are in anjalimudrā, palms pressed together, but with the index of right hand just crooked behind the rest. On Buddha’s left, the Bodhisattva’s right hand is extended, palm outwards; the thumb is missing but the wrist is intact and completely relaxed. Wrist and fingers are again seen to perfection in the left hand: no opportunity to depict graceful movement has been lost. In all these details the embroidery has followed the original cartoon in ink, which set out even such minor details as the flowers and buds scattered by the heavenly beings above. It invites comparison with the most delicate of the early Tang wall paintings, such as the Bodhisattva as Guide of Souls in Cave 205(Vol.2, text figure, p.302), or a donor in Cave 401(Chūgoku Sekkutsu, Tonkō Makkōkutsu, Vol.3, Pl.7).
    Such comparisons inviting an early date are confirmed when we examine the demure attitudes of the donors below: the ladies in high-waisted dresses, with shoulder shawls: the men with modest cap-ribbons falling naturally; while at the top the canopy is of the domed kind, with curved ribs and segments alternating in colour, that we have already seen in the Representations of Famous Buddhist Images(Vol.2, Fig.9).
    As noted above, the panel, apart from the losses sustained through long storage in a folded state, is in an amazingly good state of repair. The edges on both sides have been well preserved, and very little, if any, of the top and bottom edges has been lost, other than perhaps a few centimetres of unembroidered space. The panel is made up of hemp cloth, now visible in many place, although this was originally entirely covered by thin silk of a balanced close weave. Although this silk has now largely perished, it can still be seen easily, particularly in the upper left corner. Both the thin silk ground and the hemp cloth support are in fact formed of three widths of material sewn together, the seams being completely hidden when beneath the embroidery, but now easily visible on the plain ground due to the better preservation of the silk along the edges of the seams. After the embroidery reached London, it was couched on a new linen backing and mounted on a stretcher as a panel. For many years it hung in a glazed frame on the landing of the North Staircase of the British Museum, protected by a curtain. When the upstairs galleries were renovated in 1971, a special case was prepared for it so that it is frequently on view at entrance to Oriental Gallery Ⅱ.
    Close examination of the embroidery shows that the design was first drawn in outline in ink directly onto the silk ground. Following this preliminary drawing, the main contours were first worked, most of them in dark blue silk, in lines of split stitch. In some places, for example in the contours of the rock of the mountain and in some of the drapery of the Bodhisattva on the left, these outlines were done in brown instead of blue. After this each of the areas enclosed by the outlines was filled by closely packed soft unplied floss silk. Stein describes this as “worked solid in satin stitch, ”but it many perhaps be split stitch, with long over-lapping stitches to produce a satiny finish. In general these lines fill the area in the same way that a field many be ploughed, following the outer boundaries and gradually reducing the area left to be done. There are , however, a number of variations: in many places the outlines are dispensed with and, just as in kesi (kossu; 緙絹) weave, a consistent division produces a line within a single colour, as in the centre line of the breast of the Bodhisattva on the right. This technique is also used in conjunction with a change of colour, for instance on the breast of the Buddha himself; it is used again to mark the edges of the petals in the lotus pedestals, and of the floral motifs in the embroidered hems of the garments of the two Bodhisattvas. The rock structure of the Vulture Peak, in several colours, is distinguished both by outlines in blue or brown, and occasionally by setting the filling stitches at right angles in adjacent facets of the rock, giving a sharp variation in reflectance.
    Within each area so filled, there are subtle variations in colour, as well as differences in the length of stitch and type of silk used. For most of the large areas, the silk used is a single, rather full, unplied floss silk, and the stitches are long, often between 8 and 10 mm in length, giving a satiny appearance. In many places, however, as it was worked behind the needle, the two strands of the silk lightly twisted together (within each strand the silk is of course untwisted): this can be seen for example in the blue rock. In places where the silk is finer, this twisting of the strands is correspondingly tighter, as can be seen in some areas of the Bodhisattvas’ robes. Sometimes the stitches were much shorter in order to give a different surface texture. The clearest example of this is in the stitch (still a split stitch but with short stitches instead of long ones) used for the Buddha’s extended right arm. Here a totally different effect is achieved since each line of split stitch, instead of being closely packed, is quite separate from its neighbours, leaving the underlying thin silk ground clearly visible. When the embroidery was new, this technique must have resulted in an enhanced luminosity of the forearm and hand, distinct from the golden colour of the upper arm and shoulder; indeed this is still true today. In the hand itself, the way in which the lines of stitches follow the curves of the fleshy parts of the palm and fingers can be seen directly in the plate (Pl.1-2). The outlines of this hand and of the arm right up to the shoulder are in a silk which today appears completely black, without a hint of blue.Zwalf 1985

    This splendid embroidery, as large as any Dunhuang paintings found by Stein, shows the Buddha in the rocky surround of the Vulture Peak (Ghṛdhrakūṭa) at Rājagṛha preaching the ‘Lotus Sūtra’. It had been carefully folded to protect the Buddha, but beneath the fold the two disciples representing the Hīnayāna are damaged. Celestial figures scatter flowers from above, and the donor family is ranged on either side below. The style and quality make this one of the finest Tang dynasty works.Rawson 1994:
    Rawson 1994:
    All types of textile art flourished during the Tang dynasty (AD 618-906) in China. An important group of Tang textiles has recently been found in excavations at the Famensi at Fufeng, in Shaanxi province; gifts to this monastery evidently included clothing as well as glass, silver and ceramics. Embroidery also continued to be developed and was used for large images of the Buddha built up in satin and chain stitch. Most of the textiles found by Aurel Stein at Dunhuang in Gansu province, including banners, altar hangings and monks' apparel, follow the Buddhist convention of being made up of small cut pieces of different cloth. These 'patchwork' items provide an invaluable cross-section of the different types of silk cloth and embroidery available at the time (BM MAS.857).
    Trade along the Silk Route was at its most vigorous during the Tang dynasty, and travellers record the bazaars of the Middle East as being full of Chinese patterned cloth and embroideries. Simultaneously we are told that the Tang capital at Chang'an (present-day Xi'an) was populated by large numbers of Iranian craftsmen. A silk weave now known as "weft-faced compound twill" appears among Chinese textiles for a few centuries from about AD 700. This may well have been a technique introduced by foreign weavers, as it seems to have been developed originally in Iran. In the West it was particularly associated with repeating designs of roundels enclosing paired or single animals, with flower heads or rosettes between the roundels (BM MAS.876 and 877). The scroll design with flowers and birds occurs in ceramics and other decorative arts from the Tang dynasty onwards.The Getty's curatorial team suggests the title as Miraculous Image of Liangzhou (Fanhe Buddha)這幅刺繡作品色彩豐富,技藝精湛,是敦煌藏經洞出土的最優秀的作品之一。從刺繡的做工上說,可與奈良國立博物館藏(勸修寺舊藏)的《釋迦牟尼說法圖繡帳》 (見《日本佛教美術源流》,254頁)相媲美(該作品製作於8世紀,尺寸爲207×157cm)。大英博物館所藏的斯坦因收集品中,還有其他一些刺繡作品,但多是裝飾性的,而該作品則同其他絹繪淨土圖一樣氣勢壯觀。


  • Bibliography

    • Zhao 2007 bibliographic details
    • Zwalf 1985 311 bibliographic details
    • Whitfield & Farrer 1990 bibliographic details
    • Rawson 1992 fig. 94, 118 bibliographic details
    • Tucker 2003 fig.163 bibliographic details
    • Whitfield 2004a fig.54 bibliographic details
    • Vainker 2004 figs.47 and 67 bibliographic details
    • Whitfield 1985 pl.1 bibliographic details
    • Stein 1921a pp.983-984; vol.IV, pl.CIV bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display

  • Exhibition history

    2007 8 Feb-5 Aug, BM Gallery 91, 'Gods, Guardians and Immortals: Chinese Religious Paintings'
    2016 7 May-4 Sep, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China's Silk Road

  • Condition

    Heavy damage to two of the attendant figures has been caused by folding.

  • Subjects

  • Associated names

  • Associated places

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Acquisition notes

    This embroidered panel was collected by Stein during his second expedition (1906-1908), and it is assumed it was donated in 1917 with the rest of the material from this expedition. The 1917-11-28 group (with MAS numbering) refers to objects from Stein's Second Central Asian Expedition, 1906-08. As the expedition was financed 3/ 5 by the Government of India and 2/5 by the British Museum, it was agreed that the finds from the expedition should be allocated in these proportions. All the finds were shipped to London for sorting, research and publication, and subsequent distribution. The distribution of the finds between London and India was determined by specialists, appointed by the Government of India (through the India Office, London) and the British Museum, who drew up lists of the objects for approval by both sides. The specialists included: Raphael Petrucci, under supervision of Dr E Denison Ross (nominated by India Office) and Lawrence Binyon (British Museum) on paintings; Dr F W Thomas, Dr E Denison Ross (both nominated by India Office) and Dr L D Barnett (British Museum) on manuscripts and written documents; Dr E Denison Ross (nominated by India Office) and Lawrence Binyon (British Museum) on archaeological/other finds. Although the lists were drawn up and approved in 1915, the Government of India asked the British Museum to look after the entire collection during the First World War, and those allocated to India were eventually shipped in 1919. The registration card in the Student's Room indicates a 1913 date, but no acquisition record for this panel could be retrieved in the Register under that year.

  • Department


  • Registration number


  • Additional IDs

    • Ch.00260 (Stein no.)
COMPASS Title: Shakyamuni preaching on the Vulture Peak, silk embroidery on hemp cloth

COMPASS Title: Shakyamuni preaching on the Vulture Peak, silk embroidery on hemp cloth

Image description



If you’ve noticed a mistake or have any further information about this object, please email: 

View open data for this object with SPARQL endpoint

Object reference number: RFC32320

British Museum collection data is also available in the W3C open data standard, RDF, allowing it to join and relate to a growing body of linked data published by organisations around the world.

View this object

Support the Museum:
donate online

The Museum makes its collection database available to be used by scholars around the world. Donations will help support curatorial, documentation and digitisation projects.

About the database

The British Museum collection database is a work in progress. New records, updates and images are added every week.

More about the database 


Work on this database is supported by a range of sponsors, donors and volunteers.

More about supporters and how you
can help