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9. Panel from a Buddhist Ritual Crown

 Panel from a Buddhist Ritual Crown

9. Panel from a Buddhist Ritual Crown
Central Tibet, ca. late 11th-early 12th century
Distemper on wood
29.5 x 13 cm (115/8 x 51/8 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Purchase,
The Vincent Astor Foundation Gift, 1997 (1997.152)

This panel depicts an enthroned Vairochana Buddha enclosed in a rainbow halo and surrounded by thick foliage. Most likely, it was the center section of a five-leaf crown worn by Buddhist priests during religious ceremonies. Vairochana (The Resplendent One) offers one of his characteristic gestures, the bodhyagri, while holding a thunderbolt scepter (vajra) in his right hand. The figure is exquisitely rendered, with subtle characterization, elegant body proportions, convincing three dimensionality, and finely rendered details such as the curling tendrils of hair and the ovoid designs on the lower section of the skirt. The throne base is adorned with three jewels (triratna), a Buddhist symbol denoting the Buddha, his teachings (dharma), and the monastic community (samgha). Two lions flank the triratna, crouching in the interstices of the base. Directly above
Vairochana and supported by foliage is a wheel (chakra), symbol of the particular family (kula) of universal powers and attributes associated with this deity.

Vairochana sometimes serves as the central deity in a mandala of the Five Celestial Buddhas, or Tathagatas. Each of the other four presides over one of the cardinal points of the compass: Akshobhya in the east, Amoghasiddhi in the north, Amitabha in the west, and Ratnasambhava in the south. Each of these Buddhas is also associated with one of the five afflictions (panchaklesha) of the human personality: confusion (moha), pride (mana), envy (irsya), hatred (dvesha), and desire (raga).1 In Buddhist philosophy, these afflictions are said to obscure mankind's true nature, but through spiritual practice, they can be transformed into the wisdom of the Tathagata with whom they are associated. Tibetan Buddhists sometimes wore crowns adorned with figures of the five Tathagatas during Tantric rituals in which they-in deep meditative states-identified with the powers of the Tathagatas. Some initiations (abhisheka) into the mandala involve a "coronation," during which the initiate, wearing a crown (such as the one to which this panel once belonged) and other royal insignia, is sprinkled with water and accedes to the powers of the mandala.2 A king rules the
earth and its inhabitants; the Buddhist hierarch rules himself and exhibits mastery over his own life.

A complete and very fine late-fourteenth- to early-fifteenth-century Tibetan ritual crown, now in The
Metropolitan Museum of Art, was thought to be the earliest surviving example of painted ritual crowns when it was published in 1984.3 In its materials it is typical of surviving crowns. The five painted and gilded panels are made of thick paper board and are attached along the bottom to a cloth. Another fifteenth-century example is now in the Newark Museum Collection.4 Two wooden
panels from a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century ritual crown and a complete nineteenth-century example are now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.5 A late-twelfth- to fourteenth-century five-panel ceremonial crown survives from the Kharakhoto hoard, now in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. The Hermitage crown depicts five dakinis (Esoteric Buddhist goddesses) painted on thick paper. Hermitage curator Kira Samosiuk noted that "there are several such crowns in the Khara Khoto collection, some of paper, some of silk, some of wood, and varying widely in artistic manner. They bear images of the five Buddhas, the seven jewels of the chakravartin, the
Eight Auspicious Objects, or dakinis. All were used for ritual purposes."6 Gilles Béguin has written about such works and their relationship to metal crowns worn by Buddhist monks in Nepal and Tibet.7

In style, this panel can be compared closely with late-eleventh- or early-twelfth-century painting from central Tibet, notably the marvelous painted book cover featuring the bodhisattvas Dharmodgata and Sadaprarudita with a group of historical figures, perhaps lay donors (cat. no. 8). The figure of Vairochana is close to those of Dharmodgata and Sadaprarudita in body type,
physiognomy, and jewelry design. This is the earliest crown fragment yet to emerge from central Tibet, and it is certainly one of the finest examples from any period.    JCS


1. The five differ slightly in textual sources. There are many groups of five associated with the five Tathagatas, for example, the five components (panchaskandha). See Dudjom Rinpoche 1991, vol. 2, pp. 140-49. [back]

2. Tucci 1973, p. 44. For other examples of ritual crowns, see Béguin 1983. [back]

3. New York 1984, pp. 92-93. [back]

4.  Published in Reynolds, Heller, and Gyatso 1983, p. 145. [back]

5. Published in Pal 1983, pp. 240-42. [back]

6. Milan 1993, p. 178. [back]

7. Béguin 1983. [back]

all text & images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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