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6th - 11th century
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Roman murals: 1st - 3rd century

Murals are even more fragile than the walls they are painted on, so it is not surprising that few survive from the days of the Roman empire. The accidents of being covered by ash or sand, or of being originally painted underground, have preserved some examples in Pompeii, Doura-Europos and the Roman catacombs. They are not for the most part very distinguished. But they demonstrate that it is a normal custom, in Roman communities, to decorate walls by painting on the plaster.

It is equally conventional to enliven the floor with mosaics. This remains a relatively minor art form until Christian emperors move mosaic from floors to the walls of churches.


Buddhist murals: 5th - 8th century

Monks and pilgrims play an important part in the practice of Buddhism. Both are attracted to caves in remote places. And the profusion of popular stories in Mahayana Buddhism (on topics such as the adventures of Buddha in his previous lives on earth) provides a rich source of material for narrative paintings on the walls of the caves.

Two places suggest more vividly than any others the vitality of Buddhist cave painting from about the 5th century AD. One is Ajanta, a site in India long forgotten until discovered in 1817. The other is Dunhuang, one of the great oasis staging posts on the Silk Road.


At Ajanta there are about thirty architectural spaces cut into a steep cliff flanking a ravine. Some are viharas, or monasteries, with cells for the monks around a central hall. Others are chaityas, or meeting places, with a small central stupa as an object for worship and contemplation.

The paintings range from calm devotional images of the Buddha to lively and crowded scenes, often featuring the seductively full-breasted and narrow-waisted women more familiar in Indian sculpture than in painting. The latest images are from the 8th century, after which the decline of Buddhism in India causes these remote and beautiful places to become gradually abandoned and then entirely forgotten.


Dunhuang, on one of the world's greatest trade routes, is an altogether busier place than Ajanta. Rather than thirty caves, Dunhuang has nearly 500 - known collectively as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. The murals span three centuries, from the 5th to the 8th AD. The images in the earlier caves (hollowed from the soft rock, as at Ajanta) show the influence of central Asia and even India - the regions from which Buddhism travels on its way to China - but the later paintings are fully Chinese in style.

Dunhuang, unlike Ajanta, is never lost. But one particular cave is sealed against intruders. Rediscovered in 1899, this cave is found to contain fine examples of Chinese painting on silk and the world's first known printed book.


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