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Abstract

Western Pure Land transformation tableaux are images that depict a distant paradise governed by Amitābha Buddha, who vowed to save the souls of sentient beings from our current world. In Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.) China, Amitābha’s paradise emerged through painted images as a majestic water-bound palace. This dissertation reconceives of the Pure Land tableau—not as a straightforward reflection of Buddhist doctrine or a resource for the historical study of Tang architecture—but as an innovative mode of image-making, one that through painting transformed conceptions of pictorial space and the possibilities of vision in East Asian art. The Pure Land tableau reveals a daring new attitude towards the visual depiction of material phenomena in the Tang Empire, encouraging viewers to see through forms, from bodies, to buildings and landscapes. The Tang Pure Land tableau emerged at the intersection of two developments: First, the tableau allowed painters to explore the power of their own craft as mode of world making. Second, Pure Land visuality was the product of a new imperial vision, with a controlling gaze that sees through architecture, organizing a cosmopolitan synthesis of Chinese, Indic, and Central Asian forms. I argue that the Pure Land tableau became a threshold for new practices of envisioning transparency, the transmutation of substance, and the transformation of space. These developments coalesce around understandings of water as the conceptual ground—a medium and metaphor—for the Pure Land. This study examines Pure Land transformation tableaux at a cave complex called the Dunhuang Grottoes in west China, during the strongest presence of Tang control in the region between the 640s and 770s. This work consists of four chapters, each with a different emphasis on the Pure Land tableau. The first chapter reviews recent scholarship on Pure Land art at Dunhuang. The second chapter focuses on the Ajātaśatru Narrative and theories of viewing related to landscape imagery, the third chapter deals with the Sixteen Meditations and the painter’s craft of representing meditational processes. The last chapter discusses the phenomenological experience of the Pure Land tableau through the device of the “lotus pond”. Taken together, these chapters argue for a period of striking innovation in Chinese art, one that led to a dynamic rethinking of the relation of the human body to the surface of an illusionistic painting.

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