In 1477 this complex, enigmatic painting of a Buddhist deity, known as a thangka, was inscribed with the date of the Chenghua Emperor’s 30th birthday.
Depicting Chakrasamvara, a black-blue, four-headed, twelve-armed tantric deity from an esoteric branch of Buddhism known as vajrayana, the 62 x 42 centimetre fabric painting demonstrates Buddhism’s influence at the Chinese court.
‘These paintings are incredibly rare,’ says Tristan Bruck, the head of the upcoming Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art sale. ‘When they do appear at auction they attract great attention not only because of their imperial association, but also because they can be placed so precisely on the timeline of Chinese art history.
‘The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) ushered in a new era of artistic refinement and cross-cultural exchange. While most people associate it with elegant blue and white-patterned porcelain, its emperors were also devoted Buddhists and patrons of great religious art.’
Chakrasamvara’s iconography is manifold: his bell symbolises wisdom, his elephant hide represents the destruction of illusion, his curved knife and skull cup freedom from ego, while with his lasso he harnesses wisdom.
Furthermore, Bruck notes, under his feet he crushes two Hindu figures representing a form of religious ignorance that can block the path to bliss.
Surrounding Chakrasamvara is an array of 18 primordial Buddhist deities each standing or sitting on their own lotus base. Together they form a schematic representation of a mandala (the spiritual universe).
The five buddhas at the top of the painting embody the essence of Buddhahood, while the eight standing female figures indicate the cardinal and intercardinal directions. Beneath, five dancing female deities symbolise the human senses.
It's complex and, as Bruck explains, with good reason.
‘To the layperson this schematic mandala wouldn’t have made much sense,’ he says. ‘It’s in fact a didactic aid for Buddhist teachings at the highest level, and supposed to be only fully decipherable by the lamas (teachers) of the highest level.’
Bruck’s theory is that it would have been used during ceremonies in Buddhist monasteries — unrolled by priests and studied by the ordained on their journeys towards enlightenment.
A small, rare inscription running along the bottom of this painting provides a clue as to its origin. ‘From right to left it says that it was made in the 13th year of the reign of Ming emperor Chenghua, which corresponds to 1477,’ says the specialist. ‘The specified day and month actually correspond with his birthday.’
The painting, explains Bruck, could have been presented to a temple with imperial patronage in Beijing. More likely though, it was a diplomatic gift from Chenghua’s court to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery as a gesture of goodwill.
‘As well as Confucianism and Daoism, the Ming court practiced Buddhism, and emperors were keen to align themselves with the Buddhist institutions of neighbouring Tibet for religious legitimacy,’ says Bruck.
While the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York each house Tibeto-Chinese mandalas dated to Chenghua’s reign, this is one of the few examples Bruck has seen come to market.
In 2014 Christie’s sold a larger Ming-dated thangka, which was a gift from the Emperor Yongle to a Tibetan monastery, for $45 million. At the time that was a world record price for any Chinese artwork sold at auction.
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‘In the past ten years, Asian collectors have nurtured a huge market for Chinese imperial art,’ says Bruck. ‘But we are also witnessing a new appetite for Buddhist works as collectors purchase sculptures and paintings for their own private homes, temples and museums.’
This imperial painting of Chakrasamvara will be on view (by appointment) at Christie’s in New York between 16 and 23 September, ahead of its sale in the Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art sale on 24 September 2020.