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Dr Neil Schmid (Dunhuang Academy) King of Kings: Vestiges of Sasanian Sacral Kingship in 10th Century Dunhuang

February 20 @ 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm GMT


Dating from the fifth to the fourteenth century, the Mogao Caves near the oasis of Dunhuang in northwestern China contain a wealth of information charting the flows and interactions of diverse cultures across Eurasia. Donor portraits in particular furnish a remarkable range of data on the ethnicity, interregional relations, politics, and the social and religious status of the caves’ patrons. Of the thousands of donor portraits painted on the walls of the Mogao Caves, one in particular stands out for its size, meticulously painted details, and unique iconography, that in Mogao Cave 98 of Viśa‘ Saṃbhava (Li Shengtian 李聖天), the King of Khotan (r. 912–c.966) and ally of the ruling élites of Dunhuang.  Scholars typically consider his royal regalia to be Chinese in origin and style, and the king the representative of a Buddhist kingdom. However, a detailed analysis of the portrait demonstrates neither is the case. Instead, his garb and adjacent symbols reveal a richly coherent network of iconography and accoutrements Iranian in origin and Sasanian at heart, foregrounding core concepts of divine kingship as predicated on xwarrah, ‘divine glory.’ Drawing on a wide array of visual and material resources such as sculpture, metalware, and numismatic evidence from Iran and Central Asia, this talk presents for the first time a thoroughly revised analysis of Viśa‘ Saṃbhava’s portrait. I demonstrate how the royal costume and associate ornamental motifs belong to a shared visual culture of imperial legitimacy grounded in symbols of investiture that span a vast geographical and temporal range, here still very much authoritative during the 10th century in a largely Chinese context. Given our lack of knowledge about non-Buddhist aspects of Khotan, this portrait and its sacral imagery are invaluable for reevaluating fundamental notions of sovereignty in the Kingdom of Khotan.


Dr. Neil Schmid is Research Professor at the Dunhuang Academy in the Centre for Silk Road and Dunhuang Comparative Research. His research centers on Dunhuang and the Silk Road covering variety of topics: the role of Buddhist literature in ritual and art, medieval economic development, esoteric Buddhism, and transcultural flow of religious objects and ideas across Eurasia.


To join over zoom please email Matty Bradley at mb@royalasiaticsociety.org



February 20
6:30 pm - 8:30 pm GMT


Royal Asiatic Society Lecture Theatre
14 Stephenson Way
London,NW1 2HDUnited Kingdom
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