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17. Buddhist Hierarch

 Buddhist Hierarch

17. Buddhist Hierarch
Central Tibet (a Kagyu monastery), early 13th century
Distemper on cloth
59.1 x 57.2 cm (231/4 x 221/2 in.)
Pritzker Collection

click on  image below for 17: Detail full screen view

17: Detail

An enthroned Kagyu Buddhist master in the gesture of religious discourse (dharmachakra mudra) is the subject of this extraordinarily rendered painting. His double-lotus seat rests on a two-tier throne base of typical pattern--except for its unusually rich surface decoration. The throne back is supported by panels enclosing vyalas astride elephants. The ensemble is surmounted by an aureole with foliate-tailed addorsed makaras and a Garuda with outstretched wings. Three rainbows form an arc around the lama, and two flanking bodhisattvas stand against the outer one. From the upper
tier of the throne base, the ubiquitous stylized lions and elephants (see cat. no- 5) peer out between struts emblazoned with vajras (ritual thunderbolts). The corners of this level are further supported by nagarajas (serpent deities). The lower tier is held aloft by a meandering lotus scroll that emanates from a vase set on a pair of crossed vajras at the bottom center of the composition. The twining lotus vines enclose a series of deities that includes, from left to right, Mahakala, Vaishravana, Hayagriva, Achala, Manjushri (probably), and Palden Lhamo. Smaller lotus scrolls on the sides of
the painting enclose, left register, top to bottom: a siddha with his consort (Ghantapa or Carbaripa?), the siddha Dombipa seated on his lion, a siddha dancing with two females, the siddha Kukkuripa with his dog, and a blue Achala; right register, top to bottom: Shakyamuni with two adepts, the siddha Naropa (probably) with begging bowl, Vajrasattva (hands crossed at chest), the siddha Udhalipa (flying), and a dancing dakini. The top of the painting has a typical Kagyu lineage, through the charismatic Phakmo Drupa (1110-1170), with the beard. The hierarch directly above the central figure may have been one of Phakmo Drupa's disciples, but his identity is unclear.

The decorative motifs used in this painting are highly unusual and are based on two important Buddhist symbols: the triratna, three jewels (see cat. no. 15), and the chintamani, the wish-fulfilling jewel. The lotus-and-jewel frieze that typically accompanies the architectural elements of the throne is here replaced by a series of double-lotus bases of different colors that cradle blue triratnas engulfed in golden flames. The flames extend upward and largely obscure the upper cove moldings, whose profiles are nonetheless visible. Curiously, a triratna surrounded by flames is drawn on the back of the painting (see fig. 35), and another triratna, this time surrounded by golden lotus buds, is shown on the throne cloth. The uprights of the throne are also atypically decorated with vajras. The sides of the painting have borders of lotus bases supporting single jewels. This same motif also surrounds the deities in the bottom and side registers. Single and triple flaming jewels set on lotus-petal bases are also used to represent the lotus flowers that fill the borders and are used in decorative details throughout the painting. At the very edge of the thanka is an interlocking border of Central Asian derivation.1

Some of the stylistic elements in this thanka are related to those of several paintings in the exhibition, and it is in some ways particularly close to the Buddha with Five Tathagatas (cat. no. 15). The lineage surrounding the main figure is identical--with the exception of one of the siddhas in the right register--to a previously published thanka of Samvara and his consort.2 However, the painting stands apart as one of the greatest virtuoso displays of early Tibetan painting. Its jewellike palette of rich blues, reds, whites, and yellows supplemented by softer tones is well preserved, and gold has been used for decorative effect to an extent and with success unequaled in any other work. Some of the pigment has been built up into tiny mounds and then gilded, creating rows of reflective beads, a technique that is rarely used at this early date (see fig. 41).    SMK

1. The same border appears on cat. no. 15 [back]

2. Pal 1984, no. 12. [back]

all text & images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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