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The Arts of the Silk Roads

by John Major

The blending and dissemination of art is closely related to the
larger context of the travel of people, their beliefs, ideas, and
technology. This essay explores some of the art traditions, many of
them devotional in nature, of the Silk Roads.

travel of artistic motifs, styles, and techniques along the Silk Road
is closely bound up with the larger context of the travel of beliefs,
ideas, and technology. For example, the art of the Silk Road includes
the devotional art of Buddhism and Islam, the ideas behind certain
styles of art such as narrative murals, and the technology to produce
various works of art, including gigantic statuary and printed pictures.
Religion is an important inspiration for art everywhere, and much of
the art of the Silk Road was religious in origin. This includes not
only the extravagant visual art of Buddhism, which created a legacy of
thousands of statues, murals, and illustrated texts across much of
Central and East Asia, but also the glazed tilework of Islamic mosques,
which stresses calligraphic, geometric, and other nonrepresentational
artistic motifs. Though much of the art of the Silk Road was created to
encourage religious devotion, today we value it also as a source of
precious historical information. Buddhist cave murals often, for
example, yield a wealth of incidental information about ancient
clothing and architectural styles, pastoral and agricultural practices,
and much more. Similarly, many of the figurines produced in Tang China
for burial in tombs as grave-goods for the use of the dead are of great
historical interest today because they depict “exotic” foreign visitors
from Silk Road countries.

By far the best-known art of the Silk Road is the Buddhist art of
murals and statuary in temples and grottoes across Central Asia and
into northwestern China. But as justly famous as this Buddhist art is,
it is only one of many types of art that have flourished or been
transported along the Silk Road over the centuries. Artistic artifacts
and influences of many cultures, in many media and in many styles have
traveled in both directions along the Silk Road, and have exerted their
influences over surprisingly long distances. In addition to sculpture
and pictorial art, the art of the Silk Road includes textiles,
ceramics, metalwork, glass, and a wide variety of decorative techniques
applied to objects of beauty and utility.

In this section we will consider only a few examples that illustrate the range and complexity of the arts of the Silk Road.

Objects and new styles were traveling across Asia at the beginning of
the Common Era. A mirror from India with an ivory handle carved in the
shape of a female fertility deity was buried under volcanic ash at
Pompeii in 79 CE. Among the first images of Buddhist deities in human
form were those carved in the province of Gandhara (present-day
Pakistan) in the 2nd century CE. Unlike anthropomorphic Buddhist images
carved farther south in India, these Gandharan figures, which were
based on provincial Roman models, wear heavy, toga-like robes and have
wavy hair. The figural tradition of Buddhist art spread through Central
and East Asia and also to Southeast Asia, taking on local and regional

Chinese landscape painting has part of its roots in Buddhist pictorial
art as well, notably the background settings created by Buddhist
muralists and wood-block printers for picture-stories of the life of
the Buddha. The polychrome conventions that originated in Buddhist
pictorial art merged with the indigenous Chinese landscape vocabulary
of Daoist paradise painters also. Chinese landscape motifs made their
way west along the Silk Road to Persia, where the landscape
backgrounds, showing a layered-plane treatment of mountains with hard
outlines and the trees silhouetted on mountain ridges, became prominent
features of Persian miniatures.

Textile motifs traveled rapidly in both directions on the Silk Road.
The typical Persian roundel figure (often featuring two animals
face-to-face inside a circle of dots, a motif that itself is a legacy
of the animal style art of the steppe tribes) on printed or woven
textiles was taken up by Chinese weavers during the Tang period, both
to cater to the export market and because it became stylish in China as
well. Ikat weaving, a technique that produces a pattern in cloth by
dyeing the warp and/or the weft threads before they are woven into
cloth, originated in India and traveled both to Persia and western
China. The ikat weavers of the large Jewish community in Bukhara
practiced their difficult craft until very recent times, and attempts
have been made to revive it today.

The ancient Chinese were adept at a great many applied and decorative
arts, but inevitably some were emphasized more than others. The Chinese
had almost no tradition of glass-working, and glassware (a specialty of
Egypt and the Arab cities of the Middle East) found an enthusiastic
market in China. But the heaviness and breakability of glass made it
dif.cult to transport overland on the Silk Road; not very much ever
made it to China, and it was very expensive when it reached the Chinese
market. Gold and silver metalwork, another Middle Eastern specialty,
was imported into China in great quantities, especially during the Tang
period. Many gold and silver cups, bowls, jugs, and other fancy
utensils have been excavated from Chinese tombs, and often they are
decorated with typical Middle Eastern motifs such as grif.ns, deer,
carnivorous beasts, and other animal-style art. Later indigenous
Chinese metalwork often showed stylistic influences from these earlier
imported pieces.

Yet another example of an artistic tradition that traveled the Silk
Road is blue-and-white porcelain, which was produced in China from
about the 13th century CE onward. Islamic potters decorated early
(post-8th century) tin-glazed vessels with cobalt. Muslim merchants in
Chinese coastal cities introduced the Islamic cobalt-decorated ware to
China. In the late 13th century potters in South China began decorating
white porcelain vessels with cobalt blue. Until the 15th century most
of the Chinese blue-and-white porcelain was exported to Southeast Asia
and the Middle East, where it was copied, although not in porcelain. In
the 15th century the Chinese court embraced blue-and-white porcelain,
encouraging domestic use. There were reciprocal elements in this trade
as well, both because Chinese manufacturers often decorated export
blue-and-white porcelain with tulips, pomegranates, Arabic script, and
other motifs designed to appeal to a Middle Eastern clientele, and
because the best cobalt-bearing pebbles for producing the blue
glaze—the deep blue tint called “Mohammadan blue”—came from rivers in
Central Asia, and were transported by caravan to China for processing
and use.