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Exhibition Highlight - 5

Kneeling Winged Monster

Kneeling Winged Monster

Kneeling Winged Monster
Xiangtangshan: Northern Group of Caves, North Cave, below perimeter wall niches, 550-559 CE.
Limestone Relief, 34 x 27 x 10 in. (86.4 x 68.6 x 25.4 cm).
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust (35-276).
Photo: Jamison Miller.

Monsters play an important role in the decoration of the North Cave at Northern Xiangtangshan. Grotesque and awkward, they contrast sharply with the serene and graceful images of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. With their frightening qualities, the monsters represent potentially harmful spirits, and in ancient China there was widespread belief that malevolent demons and ghosts were the cause of illness, accidents, madness, natural disasters, and all manner of suffering. In the North Cave, the monster figures were located near the floor and shouldered the columns of the jeweled pagoda niches around the perimeter of the chamber. The fictive architectonic weight of the structures around the divine figures crushes the monsters. Their subservient position in the overall design illustrates the power of Buddhist wisdom to overcome superstitious fears and tame harmful spirits and to then place them in the service of good.