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A RARE BLACK GROUND PAINTING OF MAHAKALA PANJARNATA
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE WEST COAST COLLECTION
A RARE BLACK GROUND PAINTING OF MAHAKALA PANJARNATA

TIBET, 18TH CENTURY

Details
A RARE BLACK GROUND PAINTING OF MAHAKALA PANJARNATA
TIBET, 18TH CENTURY
33 x 21 1/8 in. (83.8 x 56.2 cm.)
Provenance
Private collection, Australia, by repute

Lot Essay

Fire surrounds a dwarfish and big-bellied Black Lord of the Pavilion, who stands upon a prostrate human figure pinned down atop a lotus throne, which is barely visible through the masses of carefully-shaped flames that encircle each of the retinue figures who surround him. The viewer’s attention is directly drawn to the bright white teeth that protrude in a fierce manner from the gaping red mouth of the deity and his three bulging red-tinged eyes. Atop his head sits a crown with five jewels and five smiling human skulls. His wild gold hair is topped with a vajra and tied with a small serpent resembling the one delicately-rendered around his belly. His heavy gold eyebrows and tufts of facial hair resemble his jewelry in their spiraling designs. The finely painted details of the jewelry, bone ornaments, protective staff, curved knife, blood-filled skull cup, and tiger-skin, were all clearly executed with the finest brush. Mahakala’s garland of fifty severed human heads is also rendered with incredible detail, each expression distinct from the next and each hair defined. Compare these details to those in an example of Panjarnata Mahakala in the Rubin Museum of Art (see figure a).
The beauty and grandeur of the present painting, however, is not all contained within the central figure. This dynamic composition is a result of creative and expertly-painted details filling each and every space between the wrathful retinue of figures: animals emerge between flames, miniature necromancers, monks, and warriors appear in small vignettes, and implements among a feast of gruesome offerings fill the bottom of the canvas, all in harmony with the terrific mood of the painting. The artist of the present work managed to fit an extraordinary volume of figures, flames, symbols, and ritual representations into the composition, and the black ground creates an all-pervasive dark space from which these forms emerge and coalesce. The sheer number of elements packed into the painting and precision with which the mass of details is executed unquestionably makes this painting worthy of display among Tibetan masterworks.


The Popularity & Importance of Panjarnata Mahakala in the Study of Tibetan Art

Tibetan art is known for repeating and replicating the same figures in painting and sculpture. This is understandable when most of the figures are derived from religious texts and Buddhist narratives. The totality of figures can be generally separated into two broad subject categories; teachers (real and mythical) and deities (peaceful or wrathful). In the category of wrathful figures, the subject of Panjarnata Mahakala was exquisitely depicted in painting, and with excellent examples in various museums and important private collections around the world. What explains the presence of several finely painted Mahakala Panjarnata thangkas, and why might it be important for the study of Tibetan art?
Panjarnata, meaning ‘Lord of the Pavilion,’ is classified by function within Tantric Buddhism as a protector deity, and within the different Tibetan Buddhist traditions each school had a principal protector. For the Sakya Tradition, founded in 1073, Panjarnata was in the past and remains today, the principal idealized protector of the school. Subsequent to its founding, the Sakya sect was patronized by the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty of China and enjoyed prestige and power. During that time, fine examples of Panjarnata in painting were created for ritual use and gift exchange. Because of the dominance, popularity and power of the Sakya school, many sub-schools were spawned with their own prosperous and powerful monasteries and administrations. Examples of these are the Shalu, Jonang, Bodong, Ngor, Tsar and Dzongpa establishments. Those monasteries became powerful because of broad patronage from wealthy donors and strategic alliances often through marriage between the powerful patron families. For example, the hereditary Khon family of Sakya was related by marriage to the Kushang family of Shalu, the Gyantse royalty and to the Maharajas of Mustang and Sikkim.
At various times since 1073 these Sakya-influenced, but administratively independent, schools and monasteries wielded great power and wealth. Based on that wealth, works of art of the greatest quality were created from the twelfth century to the present. Being doctrinally related, several of those great works of art were depictions of Panjarnata Mahakala, the shared protector for all those wealthy monastic houses and related patron families.
This painting of Panjarnata conforms to an established standard in Buddhist hierarchy and the placement of figures in the composition. The placement follows the common adage for such paintings: ‘Big to small, top to bottom, left to right, and inside to outside.’ Panjaranata is the large oversized central figure with a glaring, slightly sideways, wrathful expression. At the top center is a blue deity figure accompanied by the two historical figures of Mal Lotsawa Lodro Drag (born in the eleventh century) and Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158). The last two represent the human lineage of teachers.
Descending on the left side are Bhutadamara Vajrapani, blue, with four arms, and Shri Shmashana Adhipati in the appearance of two dancing skeletons. Descending on the right side are Ekajati holding a vase and Shri Devi with four arms, riding atop a donkey. Bhutadamara is the meditational deity (ishtadevata) and the latter three are additional but lesser protector deities within the Sakya tradition. Alternately, the ‘Tsang’ matrix of related religious traditions can be used to refer to the religious streams originating from or relating to the Sakya school and traditions which almost all are based in the Tsang Province of Central Tibet. In the lower third of the composition are five figures known as the Five Activity Protectors. These five, referred to in the liturgies, are a family with a mother, father, and three wrathfully agitated children who as a group function as the special attendants, or servants, to Panjarnata.
Scattered throughout the composition, regardless of the hierarchy of the principal figures, are very small depictions of monks, warriors, black hat dancers, black men and women. In the mass of red and maroon flames surrounding Panjarnata are the forms of birds, dogs and wolves. All of these additional depictions represent the outermost of the retinue of the entourage of Panjarnata. The most important figures are the largest, and the smallest are the least important. The more important of the secondary figures are read from top to bottom. The more important of the subjects are placed on the left side.
The central importance of Panjarnata paintings are related to their age, the wealth of the donors who commissioned the works and the skill of the highly-paid artists over the centuries. Because of the breadth of surviving fine Panjarnata paintings, it becomes possible to study a great variety of Tibetan painting styles by focusing on a single iconographic subject example – in this case, Mahakala Panjarnata. These examples have been repeated many times and in many different regional areas, providing a wealth of information and different compositions to compare for study and investigation.
The early examples of Panjarnata prior to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries follow an Indian or Nepalese-influenced Tibetan style of composition. Early compositions are generally characterized as figures placed within strict vertical and horizontal registers and geometric structures. Following that period arose the greatly influential painting traditions of Mentangpa and Khyentse Chenmo of the late fifteenth century. These two artists abandoned the strict compartmentalization of the principal and secondary figures and adopted a floating landscape composition where the figures are placed against an imaginary landscape or open space. The figures are represented as more dynamic, with movement and realistic expression, likewise in the ornaments and dress. Landscape for the wrathful deity depictions is generally suggestive and minimalist. For the peaceful deities and human figures, landscape becomes abundant and varied in the differing painting styles based on the imagination of the artist. A distinction should be made between a painting tradition and a painting style: The first can have many different styles within the tradition and the latter unique to an individual artist or atelier and readily identifiable as a style.
The present Panjarnata painting belongs to the artistic style of a currently unknown artist of central Tibet that has followed in a mixed style of the two principal painting traditions of Mentangpa and Khyentse. The facial features, curled or flowing hair, ornaments, decorations and the small figure vignettes with cemetery scenes are all reminiscent of the Khyenri painting tradition. The robust and wild flames surrounding all the figures is a characteristic of the Mentangpa tradition. In general, the painting follows neither of these traditions or styles specifically because it is a fusion of the two with added and changed elements and characteristics that are unique to the changing times and the style and skill of this unique and unknown master artist.

Himalayan Art Resources (himalayanart.org), item no. 24453.

Jeff Watt, 1-2019
Himalayan Art Resources
www.himalayanart.org

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