The monumental embroidered Raktayamari thangka bearing an imperial Yongle presentation mark is one of the world’s great textile treasures. In scale and quality of execution, it is one of the major landmarks of early Ming dynasty textile arts. Its context in the deluxe textile production from the period is equally remarkable. Two pieces from the same group are at the Jokhang Monastery; a much damaged, but singular, woven lampas thangka of similar monumental size and style, as well as the survival of half a dozen fragments of comparable lampas-woven thangkas (1). Seldom in history do we witness the mustering of technical mastery, aesthetic achievement and lavish investment in human and fiscal resources that result in a body of art works of such transcendence.
A long history of spectacularly large and rich textiles comes down to us, but only in description. The instructions as mentioned in the books of Exodus and in Numbers (2) for building a tabernacle to contain the Ark of the Covenant, describe a wealth of blue, purple and red textiles used for curtains to divide the various sections of the tabernacle, for covers to protect sacred objects when moving camp and for garments to clothe the priests. When moving camp, a solid blue cloth covered the Ark, already covered with the shielding curtain of finely twisted linen and blue, purple, and scarlet yarns worked with pattern of cherubim by skilled craftsmen. The tradition of using sumptuous, patterned textiles to designate spaces within places of worship continued in Judeo-Christian practice. The mosaic of the Empress Theodora and her court in the Basilica of St. Vitale in Ravenna, built in 547 by Justinian I, depicts one such curtain being pulled aside by an attendant for her entrance into the church.
A thousand years earlier, the peplos presented annually in Athens beginning in 556/5 BCE was the showpiece of the late summer Panathenea festival. Young women of the city-state were charged with weaving this large “saffron yellow” cloth patterned in blue and purple depicting the Battle of the Gods and Titans. Described as large as “a sail,” it was offered to clothe the statue of the cult goddess Athena by the citizens in appreciation of her beneficence during the year past and with an entreaty for success in the year to come.
Historians of the Muslim conquest of the Sassanian empire in CE636 describe a spectacular carpet in the palace at Ctesiphon, called “the Springtime of King Chosroes” which depicted garden beds framed by watercourses with trees and flowers picked out in gold and silver threads, the paths strewn with seed pearls, the shrubs bejewelled with precious stones and the streams sparking with blue gems. The carpet is said to have been cut into small pieces and distributed as war booty. The Arab caliphates of subsequent centuries would go on to commission their own bejewelled textiles with roundels of actual pearls, rather than woven or embroidered symbolic ones.
In Buddhism, textiles seem to play rather paradoxical roles. One of the founding principles of the Buddhist faith—renunciation and withdrawal from the world of attachment was expressed in monastic garments of unbleached cotton that were patched together from old, discarded fabrics. The mantle was called kasaya, a term that originally meant “impure-colored,” and referred to cast-off clothing. These remnants were to be pieced and patched into garments. Yet, during Buddhism's spread from India across Central Asia in the second and third centuries BCE, and to China in the first century CE, rituals evolved from monastic rites into public ceremonies. Special colorful textiles decorated the worship halls of shrines and temples and the celebrants of ritual were often clothed in sumptuous vestments. These, too, could be rationalized as exemplifying the principle of renunciation when donated (i.e. discarded) by the pious.
Especially created embroideries and tapestries with images of the Buddhist pantheon have been preserved from Buddhist cave sites in Central Asia. The 8th century one and a half by two meter embroidered hanging of the Buddha preaching, once belonging to Kaju-ji in Yamashina and now in Nara National Museum, and the fragmentary embroidery of Sakyamuni Buddha preaching the Lotus Sutra on Vulture Peak from Dunhuang and of the same date, now in the British Museum(3), are but two outstanding examples. Under the Yuan dynasty the production of extraordinary woven textiles, including those with pictorial Buddhist imagery, received imperial attention and support. Relocating experienced weavers and their equipment from West and Central Asia reenergized the Chinese luxury textile industries during the late 13th and early 14th centuries, such as the Yamantaka Mandala with Imperial Portraits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection (4). The early Ming dynasty imperial agencies that controlled the output of these workshops built upon those accomplishments and encouraged even more spectacular results.The Raktayamari thangka and its companions are testament to levels of piety, generosity and extravagance concentrated in the person of the Chinese emperor that remain unmatched in world history. This is the emperor who moved the imperial capital from Nanking to Beijing and had the Forbidden City built and repaired the Grand Canal all in less than 20 years. He also commissioned a fleet of gigantic treasure ships under the command of his chief eunuch Zhenghe to explore the South Pacific, South East Asia, India, the Middle East and East Africa.
While not without an ego to match his title of Son of Heaven, his accomplishments are as much the result of the concentration of extreme wealth and the ability to mobilize human and fiscal capital across a vast empire as they are about his vision of a renewed empire at the center of the civilized world. In the geopolitics of early 15th century Asia Tibet was key to the balance of power. The recently ousted Yuan dynasty Mongols remained a threat from their homeland north of the Great Wall and the continuing Mongol ties to the Buddhist leaders of that country only exacerbated the situation. Aside from the Yongle emperor’s personal convictions and call to action, Ming Chinese imperial support of Kagyu sect, in contrast to the Yuan support of the Sakya school was a vehicle for demonstrations of piety and power greater than any that had preceded the Ming dynasty.
At the time the Raktayamari thangka was created the most celebrated embroideries in the West were the luxury secular and ecclesiastical embroideries made in England, known as opus anglicanum that often used gold and silver threads on rich silk velvet, such as Syon cope in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection dating from 1300-1320 (5). While the workmanship can be compared, the scale of the surviving examples remains human, not monumental. Wall-sized works from around 1400 were usually tapestry-woven, largely in wool, such as the set of Nine Heroes tapestries produced in South Netherlands, preserved at the Cloisters Museum in New York. They were probably made for Jean, duc de Berry, one of great art patrons of his day. His spending on his collection was so lavish as to leave him deeply in debt when he died in 1416.
In fact few rulers in history have commanded the authority and mustered the resources that led to achievements on the scale of those of the Yongle emperor. The French monarch, Louis XIV ruling a full century later, arguably did as much to transform French culture and the arts. Yet in the realm of pictorial textiles, with the exception of tapestry weaving, there was nothing comparable to the great Buddhist ritual hangings made as diplomatic gifts to Tibet in the early years of the 15th century.
The Raktayamari thangka contains millions and millions of carefully placed stitches of floss silk in a dazzling array of colours, covering every square inch of the surface of the textile. From a distance it reads as a painting, as was the intention, but this picture is made with stitches, not brush strokes. The tradition of presenting magnificent Chinese textiles to select Tibetan monasteries and religious and secular leaders continued until the end of the 16th century and was reinstituted in the late 17th century under the Qing dynasty. None of the tapestry or drawloom woven thangka or any of the embroidered ones approached the scale and extraordinary skill represented in the Raktayamari thangka and its contemporary textiles.