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    Sale 2126

    Masterpieces from the Zimmerman Family Collection

    15 September 2008, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 5

    A Highly Important Thangka with Scenes from the Life of the Buddha Shakyamuni


    Price Realised  


    A Highly Important Thangka with Scenes from the Life of the Buddha Shakyamuni
    Central Tibet, 12th century
    The Buddha seated in bhumisparsa mudra on a lotus throne over a stepped plinth, backed by a green cushion and golden halo, the throne back with a stepped roof through which the bodhi tree is visible, flanked by standing bhodisattvas, surrounded by various scenes from the Buddha's life, with eight golden stupas at top
    Opaque pigments and gold on textile
    30 1/8 x 23 in. (76.5 x 58.4 cm.)

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    This finely painted thangka illustrates the Buddha's life by merging two separate iconographies into one format, the ashtamahapratiharya cycle from the Pala tradition which describes eight principal events, and the Lalitavistara sutra which describes twelve deeds. The narrative elements are reduced to iconic images that remain recognizable due to attributes or gestures.

    The twelve Lalitavistara sutra deeds are depicted surrounding the central composition in a clockwise direction; for a complete description, see Huntington and Huntington, 1990, p. 316-318. The eight events from the ashtamahapratiharya cycle, which correspond to "eight magical stupas" by which a worshipper can attain his own nirvana, are listed in order of their occurrence in the Buddha's life (annotated in the accompanying image):

    1. Birth - His mother, Queen Maya, grasps the branches of the sal tree with one hand and has her other arm around her sister Mahaprajapati as Siddhartha emerges from her side, Indra and Brahma standing to the side, ready to catch him.

    2. The triumph over Mara - Mara, the God of Desire, felt his power in peril as Siddhartha meditated upon the root of all suffering. To distract the prince from his task, Mara first sent his daughters to dance in front of him, depicted directly below the throne with Mara at left shooting arrows of desire at the Buddha. When this did not work, he sent his demon army, visible at either side of the tree branches behind his throne. Buddha touches the Earth, calling the goddess to witness as he fends off Mara's attacks.

    3. The first sermon in Deer Park of Sarnath - after reaching enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first sermon known as the Dharmachakra or "Wheel of Law." He is depicted with his hands in the mudra by the same name, holding the wheel with one hand and turning it with the other. This event is also traditionally symbolized by two deer flanking the Wheel of Law.

    4. The miracles of Shravasti, where the Buddha performed two miracles before a gathering of disbelievers. In the first, known as yamakapratiharya or "Pair illusion," the Buddha rose into the air and issued flames from his shoulder and water from his feet. In the second miracle, known as mahapratiharya or "Great Illusion," the Buddha multiplies himself so that there is one of him for each witness.

    5. The descent from Trayastrimsa, the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods - According to several texts, Buddha visited his mother in Heaven to provide her with the benefits of his wisdom, spending thee months there before descending back to earth. In the present example, Buddha is shown with a golden ladder behind him and two of the Gods on either side, all being showered by flowers from above.

    6. The taming of Nalagiri, the wild elephant - Buddha's evil cousin, Devadatta, released this wild elephant in the hopes of killing Buddha. Instead, Nalagiri was calmed by Buddha's presence and kneeled before him. The thangka depicts Buddha blessing the kneeling elephant.

    7. The monkey's gift of honey - During the Buddha's stay in the forest, a monkey broke off a piece of honeycomb and offered it as a gift. The Buddha smiled but was unable to accept it, explaining that he could not eat the honeycomb with the bees still inside. The monkey carefully removed the honey from the honeycomb and placed it in the Buddha's alms bowl instead, so that the spiritual teacher could have his sustenance without causing suffering to others.

    8. The parinirvana - The Buddha's death is celebrated as the moment before he attained nirvana, and is usually depicted with his reclining form surrounded by his worshippers with both sorrowful and happy expressions, as in the upper right of the present example.

    Though this painting is stylistically derived from Pala Indian prototypes, Huntington and Huntington (1989, p. 318) describe the synthesis of two iconographic programs as "wholly Tibetan," and "an important insight into early Tibetan religious thinking." Pal (1991, p. 146) adds that this is "one of the earliest thankas from Tibet to represent scenes from the life of Buddha Sakyamuni. It is a fine example of the early style with well-preserved, vibrant colors."


    P. Pal, Light of Asia: Buddha Sakyamuni in Asian Art, 1984, cat. no. 11
    P. Pal, American Collectors of Asian Art, 1986, p. 177
    S. Huntington and J. Huntington, Leaves from the Bodhi Tree: The Art of Pala India, (8th - 12th centuries) and its International Legacy, 1990, cat. no. 107
    Conde Nast Traveler, May 1991, p. 46
    P. Pal, Art of the Himalayas: Treasures from Nepal and Tibet, 1991, p. 144-145, cat. no. 81
    A. Chayet, Art et Archeologie du Tibet, 1994, plate 13
    P. Pal, Dancing to the Flute: Music and Dance in Indian Art, 1997, p. 130, cat. no. 75
    The Centenary Taj: 100 Years of Glory, 2003, p. 209


    Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Art Institute of Chicago; The Brooklyn Museum, Light of Asia: Buddha Sakyamuni in Asian Art, March 1984 - February 1985, cat. no. 11
    The Dayton Art Institute; Baltimore, The Walters Art Gallery; The Newark Museum; Chicago, The David and Alfred Smart Gallery, Leaves from the Bodhi Tree: The Art of Pala India (8th-12th centuries) and Its International Legacy, November 1989 - December 1990, cat. no. 107
    Newark Museum; Portland Art Museum; Phoenix Art Museum; Pittsburgh, The Helen and Clay Frick Foundation; Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; Pasadena, Pacific Asia Museum and Tampa Museum of Art, Art of the Himalayas: Treasures from Nepal and Tibet, January 1992 - October 1993, cat. no. 81
    Sydney, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Dancing to the Flute: Music and Dance in Indian Art, 1997, June - August 1997, cat. no. 75