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46. Mandala of Jnanadakini

 Mandala of Jnanadakini

46. Mandala of Jnanadakini
A Nepalese artist
Tibet (a Sakya monastery), late 14th century
Distemper on cloth
84.5 x 73.3 cm (331/4 x 287/8 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Purchase, Lita
Annenberg Hazen Charitable Trust Gift, 1987 (1987.16)

The format of this mandala is typical: a palace with four gates, each flanked by makaras disgorging foliate arcs, which are, metaphorically, the ends of vajras (thunderbolt scepters). If the shafts of the vajras were shown, they would cross at the center of the palace behind the main deity and indicate the purified realm that she inhabits. Jnana means wisdom, and Jnanadakini is the feminine aspect of Jnanadaka, a fierce manifestation of the Buddha Vajrasattva, who presides over the five Tathagatas (see cat. no. 10). Jnanadakini has three faces and six arms, and she is surrounded by eight assistants and by the four guardians who sit within the portals of the palace.1 The encircling realms of lotus, vajra, and fire are set within a ring containing the eight great cremation grounds of India. The inclusion of this last band is proscribed when horrific deities are portrayed, because, as practitioners were often advised, it was most efficacious to meditate on them in taboo places, such as these cremation grounds. Devotees are pictured there in the midst of rituals and meditations. The quadrants of the outer circle are filled with scrolling vines inhabited by dancing dakinis, fierce goddesses associated with the void, and by lamas. The upper register contains a series of figures: the hierarch Sakya Pandita is at the center; a Kagyu lineage is to the left and a Kadampa lineage to the right. At the extreme left of the bottom register, a monk dressed in Tibetan robes sits before an offering table. To the monk's left are a series of wealth-bestowing and protective deities and a group of dakinis.

This painting is from a set of mandalas previously associated with Ngor monastery and initially dated to the early sixteenth century.2 Now it is recognized that the series was probably created in the late fourteenth century, before Ngor was founded;3 nevertheless, a Sakya provenance is still likely. All these mandalas focus on a single deity and are similar in composition to ours; none shows the kind of composite imagery that is encountered in the later Vajravali series dating to about 1429-56 (see cat. no. 47). Although the format of the Jnanadakini painting can be traced to early prototypes from Nepal or Tibet, the style is so purely Nepalese that, most probably, the work was created by a painter from Nepal.4 The almost obsessive rendering of detail is typical, as are the somewhat squat figures with round heads and delicate, pinched features. The backgrounds seen in the various tiers of the palaces are enlivened by an overall design of scrolling peonies whose earliest survival is seen in the Virupa thanka (cat. no. 35).

The gradation of tones within a single color, found in paintings commissioned by Tibetans from Nepalese artists (and, to lesser extent, in the Indian inspired thankas), is prominent here. Initially, such shading was used only to give a subtle sense of emphasis or transition at the intersections of color fields (see cat. no. 36). Thus, the darkened outer edges of the blue and red quadrants of the central room of the palace seem to float behind the central circle, whereas the adjacent white and yellow areas, whose opaque colors have not been subjected to this technique, are relatively two-dimensional.5 The same use of shading occurs conspicuously in the lotus and fire areas. A somewhat more Western sense of modeling is found in some elements-such as the makara heads-in which the highlights of forms gradually move toward more opaque or lighter tones.    SMK

1. Mallmann 1986, pp. 201-2. [back]

2. See Burawoy 1978; Pal (in Pal 1984, nos.29-31) dated two paintings from this set to the fifteenth century. [back]

3. David Jackson (in a personal communication) dates them to about 1375, and this seems to agree with our stylistic analysis. [back]

4. See cat. no.2, and New York 1997 no. 13. [back]

5. Either of the latter areas could have been darkened with black, but gray and green would have resulted, modulating the colors to another tonal range. [back]

all text & images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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