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Patterns and Dunhuang Murals: 

The Blend of Old And New


After Buildings

Cave No.217, 650-755 AD

On the edge of the Gobi Desert, the Mogao Caves have been waiting to be re-discovered and marvelled upon for over a thousand years. Being a treasure trove of Buddhist art, the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang embody the wisdom and the compelling aesthetics of mankind. 

492 caves, 45,000 square metres of murals, and over 2,000 painted statues — A lifetime would not be enough to unpack the stories of each piece of art. 

Chequered Patterns

Among the ocean of wall paintings, one particular design catches our attention: the chequered patterns. Just when you thought the patterns became popular because of the Instagram influencers you are following, you discover they had been invented long before the digital world.

But the ones you see on Dunhuang murals are not just any chequered patterns, they are the ones in sutra paintings depicting vast groups of architectures such as turrets from Cave 171 and Cave 217. These architectural images have existed in all ages dating back to the Sixteen Kingdoms.

The flourishing Tang Dynasty (618-906), a golden age of Chinese arts and culture, formed a painting style that is rich and colourful. You often see bold colour contrasts imbued with passion in paintings during this period, and the chequered patterns are a great example of this style. The overall colour structure is decorative, with the most glamourous colours: Rusted Copper,  Citrine, Azurite and Ruby, to create a nice balance, layering each colour with meticulous rhythm. It’s no wonder these chequered patterns are harmoniously eye-catching.



Cave No.171

While certain print fads can fade, this is not the case with chequered patterns. The world of fashion and design has been taking cues from the classic chequerboard for centuries.

Throughout history, the chequered patterns have passed from the surfaces of architecture to those of furnishings and beyond. Designer brands constantly draw inspiration from chequered patterns, printing them on bags, shirts, jackets, accessories……You see them at fashion shows, on art installations, and you certainly see that Instagram model wearing them countless times. Monarchs and religious leaders favour the patterns too. Churches and palaces are often decorated with chequered marble floors. 

Partnering with Dunhuang enabled us to design and create a new layer and meaning to these patterns. When you take the historical context into them and put on a stylish twist to create relevance to today's audience, they’re sure to get lots of love.

Refreshing Elements

You may find yourself lost in the vast scope of Dunhuang murals when first laying eyes on them. But some things are not to be missed.

Greatly influenced by India and the Buddhist culture, the early murals showcase grand Elysium and massive celebrations. It isn’t until the Tang dynasty that the impact of the Chinese painting style becomes apparent.

Two of the most iconic elements can be found in Chinese paintings: mountains and water. Such poetic imagery embodies an equilibrated mood. Painters often use brush strokes to pause the movement of water, mimicking the water splash while allowing mountains to move and flow in the painting.


After Water

1038-1227 AD

Although this style of “brush art” lays on strokes rather than colour, Dunhuang murals went beyond this and became something more. The colours used on the murals were done with mineral pigments as well as gold and silver leaf, adding a unique touch to the paintings.

Not only do you find nicely coloured mountains, but you find other refreshing elements like fire patterns, which represent the true light of the Buddha.

Coming Alive, Again

The conservation of the Mogao caves has been an ongoing challenge. Apart from natural threats like rainwater and sandstorms, the murals inside the caves face threats such as oxidation mainly caused by tourists and humidity in the air.

New technologies are used to digitally document the precious artworks in Dunhuang so interested people can see them no matter where they are in the world. Bringing Dunhuang art closer to our everyday life enriches the connotation of Dunhuang itself and makes it evolve into a cultural product. 

It seems that the true essence of Dunhuang can never be thoroughly understood, but one can always imagine wandering among the paintings, marvelling at the holy, the architecture, the nature, and the people. Through miraculous painted lines, the art of Dunhuang comes alive again through fashion, home design, animation……Only the sky is the limit.

Dunhuang Theme - Dazzling product mock-up ©ARTiSTORY

The article is inspired by ARTiSTORY 2022 Theme - Dunhuang: Ode to Glamour
Dunhuang, Chequered Patterns, Dunhuang Inspiration, ARTiSTORY
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