It seems likely that the future Yongle emperor was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism and became interested in it around AD 1380, when he was enfeoffed in Beijing, and of course he had strong ties to the Mongol military elite, who were also adherents of lamaist Buddhism, so it appears that he continued to practice this form of Buddhism for the rest of his life. Certainly more works of art depicting lamaist Buddhist deities and imagery were produced during his reign period than under any other Chinese emperor, with the exception of the Qing Emperor Qianlong. For further discussion of this topic see J.C.Y. Watt and D.P. Leidy, Defining Yongle: Imperial Art in Early Fifteenth-Century China, Yale University Press, 2005.
In 1406 the Yongle Emperor sent a mission to Tibet inviting the famous hierach of the Karma-pa monastry, Halima, to Nanjing, to take part in the memorial services for the Hongwu Emperor and Empress Ma. Halima first sent a tribute mission, and then in the Spring of 1407 came to the Ming court in person. There he was received with great honor, given the title Dabao Fawang (Great Precious Religious Prince) and asked to perform religious ceremonies for the emperor's deceased parents. After his return to Tibet, Halima continued to exchange gifts with the emperor. The Yongle emperor also invited the hierarch of the Sa-skya-pa to the court at Nanjing in 1413 and treated him too with great honor. Thereafter missions were sent from Sa-skya abbots until the 1430s. A high-ranking representative of the Yellow Sect was invited to Nanjing in 1413 and was also greatly honored and returned to Tibet in 1416 with many gifts. Gifts and missions continued to be exchanged with the Yellow Sect until the 1430s.
Manjusri, the embodiment of the Perfection of Wisdom (Sanskrit. Prajnaparamita), is shown here in his two-armed emanation, wielding a sword (khadga) and gracefully grasping the stem of a blue lotus (nilotpala) which rises and blooms at his left shoulder to support a manuscript of the Prajnaparamita Sutra (pustaka). This particularly large-sized cast, at 25 centimeters instead of those more typically ranging between 15, 19 or 21 centimeters, captures the regal impact of the deity and balances the martial power of the sword-wielding right arm with the languor and grace of the tilting body and left arm particularly successfully. The state of preservation of the present figure is remarkable and compares favorably with the other gilt-bronze of this form and size, illustrated in Buddhist Images in Gilt Metal, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1993, no. 52. It is interesting to note that the present figure has the sword-tip cast integrally with the tip of the topknot, thereby preventing the fragile blade from snapping off, unlike on the Taipei example.
Large gilt-bronzes of this size are also to be found in a four-armed emanation, identified as Tikshna Manjusri, in which two subsidiary hands hold a bow and an arrow. Three are known in this larger size, one from the Speelman collection, sold Sotheby's Hong Kong, October 7, 2006, lot 804, another in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, illustrated in M. Rhie and R. Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, New York, 1991, p. 139, pl. 130., and a third in the collection of the Potala Temple, Lhasa, illustrated in U. von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures in Tibet, Hong Kong, 2001, vol. II, pl. 359D (with sword lacking). The latter figure is preserved with three other smaller four-armed examples in the Potala Temple, Lhasa, see ibid., pls. 354A-C, and in particular p. 1236, fig. XX-2. Other examples of this smaller size, around 19 or 20 centimeters, are in the British Museum, London, illustrated by Zwalf, ed., Buddhism, Art and Faith, 1985, no. 308, and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, illustrated by J. Watt and D. Leidy, Defining Yongle: Imperial Art in Early Fifteenth-Century China, New York, 2005, pp. 70-1, pl. 25.