“Cave of the Sixteen Sword-Bearers” Moves to the Humboldt Forum

Humboldt Forum

Original wall paintings from the collections of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst in Dahlem have been transported in three art shipments to the Humboldt Forum, where over the coming months they will be united in a partial reconstruction of the “Cave of the Sixteen Sword-Bearers” for the first time in over a century.

On the Humboldt Forum’s third floor, an enormous white dome looms above an exhibition architecture inspired by the colours of the Silk Road and the rugged landscape surrounding Kizil, Xinjiang, China. Here, in one of the most architecturally striking halls of the Humboldt Forum, visitors will soon be able to experience the “Cave of the Sixteen Sword-Bearers”, one of the major highlights of the exhibition space. In the neighbouring “South Cube”, the “Cave of the Ring-Bearing Doves” is currently being completed, where it will later be made accessible to the public. Together, the two caves form a unique ensemble.

Caves as Part of a Buddhist Temple Complex

Originally, such caves – with their 5th–11th century frescoes – were part of a Buddhist temple complex, and served as accommodation and sanctuaries for monks. Dug into the soft rock of the mountains, the hollowed-out rock formations were covered with a coarse layer of earthen plaster, while a second fine layer of plaster formed the base of a white plaster ground. Preparatory sketches were then produced using charcoal pencils or prefabricated stencils. In these drawings, symbols of the now-extinct Tocharian alphabet were often inserted to indicate colour, according to which the painting was executed in the tempera technique. This was often refined with gold applications.

Prussian “Turfan Expeditions”, 1902–1914

The two sacred caves were discovered during the four Prussian “Turfan expeditions” carried out between 1902 and 1914 by Albert Grünwedel (1856-1935), the then-director of the Indian department of the Museum für Völkerkunde. Following their consolidation in 1914, the secco paintings came to Berlin, where they were conserved, restored, and exhibited in the museum on Stresemannstrasse until 1939. The “Cave of the Ring-Bearing Doves” was able to be exhibited as a simple square-shaped sanctuary, while only single paintings from the “Cave of the Sixteen Sword-Bearers” were shown due to a lack of space. After WWII, the collections were moved to Dahlem. Here, too, only the “Cave of the Ring-Bearing Doves” was shown as a full group of paintings. Between 1997 and 2000, the work was able to be scientifically examined, extensively restored, and reconstructed according to its original dimensions at the Museum für Indische Kunst.

Restoration of the “Cave of the Sixteen Sword-Bearers”

Over the ensuing years, conservator-restorers began to study the second Buddhist sacred cave in detail over the course of various projects, together with art historians and in collaboration with Chinese colleagues. They developed a construction plan for the Humboldt Forum based on the original dimensions. These kinds of caves are unique in museums anywhere in the world. Their archaeological paintings bear witness to the life and death of Buddha, and provide a glimpse into the far-reaching cultural and artistic connections along the Silk Road.