This paper reconsiders how and why the representation of landscape became an increasingly central component of Pure Land art in the Tang dynasty. Focusing on the seventh-century Cave 209, I examine the first set of mountain panels at Dunhuang, arguing that those polychrome landscapes represent Vulture Peak, the sacred abode of Śākyamuni Buddha. Cave 209 shows how Lady Vaidehī—the protagonist of the Meditation Sutra—emerges as the first female viewer of landscape in Chinese art. Departing from the Meditation Sutra, painters at Dunhuang resituate Lady Vaidehī, the formerly imprisoned royal consort and model Pure Land adept, within mountain ranges where she converses with the Buddha. I argue that Lady Vaidehī's encounter with the Buddha is mapped onto the space of a Dunhuang cave to enable the viewer to assume her position when facing the icon of Śākyamuni surrounded by Vulture Peak. By grappling with Vaidehī's imprisonment, painters use landscape to develop a new spatial imagery of salvation. I maintain that the striking innovations in landscape representation at Dunhuang—achievements that have been seen to anticipate later Tang “blue and green” landscapes—are in actuality based on an effort to visualize Buddhist soteriology in the early seventh century.

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