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Property from an Important Private Berkeley Collection


painting 69 7/8 x 51 in. (177.5 x 129.5 cm.)
overall 115 x 66 in. (292.1 x 167.6 cm.)
Private collection, Europe, by repute.
Sotheby's New York, 20 March 2013, lot 243.
Himalayan Art Resources, item no. 12783.

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Hannah Perry
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Lot Essay

The present lot, a monumental and exceptional thangka depicting the ferocious Vajrabhairava, the Adamantine Terrifier, is a masterpiece of 18th century Tibetan painting. It is among the largest and most finely executed painted examples of the deity, of utmost importance to the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as the Ming and Qing courts of the Chinese Empire. The painting also contains a lengthy, informative inscription dating the work to the year 1740 and providing important context on its dedication. The highly detailed work is a hallmark of Tibetan painting, synthesizing Chinese, Central and Eastern Tibetan influences.
Vajrabhairava, also known as Yamantaka, Conqueror of the Obstacle of Death, is an important deity in all sects of Tibetan Buddhism, but perhaps none more so than in the Gelug school. The founder of that tradition, Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), popularized the worship of Vajrabhairava in the 14th century, and also systemized his represented iconography. Among other aspects, the arrangement of the additional faces in a circular manner around the back of the head became almost exclusively reserved for Gelugpa depictions of the deity. As this feature is present in the current work, one can ascertain that it was created according to Gelugpa principles.
Within the Gelugpa tradition, Vajrabhairava is one of the principal meditation deities of the Anuttarayoga practice, alongside Guhyasamaja and Chakrasamvara. He is considered a wrathful manifestation of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Transcendent Wisdom. According to Buddhist mythology, Manjushri took the form of Vajrabhairava, the terrifying buffalo-headed deity to defeat Yama, the lord of death, and thus eliminating the obstacle of death. Significantly, Tsongkhapa as well as the Chinese emperor were also considered manifestations of Manjushri, explaining in part his popularity within China and Gelug-Tibet. The Gelugpa enjoyed increased importance amongst the emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), thanks in part to Tsongkhapa’s closest disciple Shakya Yeshe’s (1354-1435) prolonged presence in the capital; from the mid-17th century on, they were the dominant theocratic power in Tibet, and the sole represented Tibetan Buddhist institution in China.
Vajrabhairava remained a prominent Buddhist icon in China under the Qing emperors, who maintained direct links with the dignitaries of the Gelugpa sect, including the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. This form of Buddhism flourished within China under Qing rule (1644-1911), inspiring the construction of numerous temples in and around the capital of Beijing, as well as the creation of ambitious cast and painted images of Vajrabhairava, to be gifted from the Chinese courts to Tibet and used for local worship. In the eighteenth century, the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) promoted himself as a manifestation of Manjushri, establishing his role as a spiritual and political leader. Images of Vajrabhairava, therefore, carried both religious and political implications, promoting Gelugpa spiritual practice while simultaneously endorsing the heavenly mandate of the Emperor.
Exquisitely painted in exceptionally large format, the present painting depicts Vajrabhairava standing on a floating lotus base in militant alidhasana atop eight bulls, eight geese and various prostrate figures representing the Hindu gods Brahma, Indra, Vishnu, Shiva, Kartikkeya, Ganesha, Surya, and Chandra. His primary buffalo face, signifying Vajrabhairava’s conquest of the god of death Yama, is surmounted by tiers of wrathful heads and a diadem of flaming hair. He holds a vajra and kapala in his lower pair of hands, while his remaining thirty-two arms radiate at his sides, holding various ritual implements and trophies. He embraces his consort Vajra Vetali, who stands with her back arched, one leg wrapped around Vajrabhairava’s waist, one arm around his shoulder and the other raising a blood-filled kapala. Their embrace symbolizes the dualistic totality encompassing compassion, embodied by the male and wisdom, associated with the female. Both figures are adorned with beaded jewelry, skull crowns, and garlands of severed heads. Their entire figure is framed by a flaming mandorla, signifying the transcendent wisdom through which Vajrabhairava triumphed over death.
Above Vajrabhairava and Vajra Vetali is Vajradhara, the primordial Buddha, in consort with Vajrayogini amidst a bushel of flowering plants. To their proper left, is Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom and to their right, Tsongkhapa the founding lama of the Gelug school and living embodiment of Manjushri within said tradition. The three are flanked by two Gelug monks and further flanked by two Mahasiddhas. Below the central figures, are the dark blue Yama Dharmaraja at center, the ‘Secret’ red Dharmaraja to his proper right and Vaishravana to the right. A neat table of ritual elements, a longevity vase, kapala, conch and butter lamp are depicted beside Vaishravana, while the opposite corner depicts kapala cups full of blood, flames, and trophies of the five senses: heart, eye, ear, nose, and tongue, symbolizing touch, sight, sound, smell and taste.
The present work exhibits the finest qualities across very Tibetan and Tibeto-Chinese schools of painting The dynamic representation of Vajrabhairava, along with the vibrant color palette, symmetrical composition, delicate landscape are reminiscent of the New Menri style of painting which gained popularity in Central Tibet in the 18th century, eventually influencing painting styles of Eastern Tibet, where the present lot was dedicated. The New Menri style is associated with Choying Gyatso of the Tsang Province, who was active in Tashilhunpo monastery in the mid-17th century and helped with the murals at Potala. The well-preserved blue-green landscape further compliments the style, and creates a attractive frame for the dark blue Vajrabhairava and pale blue Vajra Vetali at center. The Tashilhunpo style is further recalled with the stylization of leaves and flowers, particularly as they surround Vajradhara. The ambitious ruyi style cloudscape ties the work to closer to an Eastern Tibetan style of painting, which share more artistic influences with Beijing and the Chinese court.
The present lot was undoubtedly an important commission, as evidenced by its monumental size, lengthy inscription, and exceptional execution of painting. The work possibly served as a prototype for other Qianlong images of Vajrabhairava throughout Tibet and China. Few paintings compare in scale and quality to the present lot. One central Tibetan example, published by M. Rhie and R. Thurman in Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, New York, 1996, pp. 284-285, no. 105, and dated to late 17th- early 18th century compares in grandeur of scale, though at 60 in. high it measures slightly smaller than the present lot. The paintings though cannot be compared in quality as the present lot exhibits exemplary draftsmanship and level of detail. The Wisdom and Compassion example however does have better preserved silver heightening, which shows how the jewelry on Vajrabhairava and Vajra Vetali would have originally appeared.
The present lot exhibits the highest quality of painting across any period and school of Tibetan painting, an exceptional feat for a work of this size. Few Gelug masterpieces have come to market in recent years which are comparable in execution; take, for example a later 19th century portrait of the eighth Dalai Lama Jampal Gyatso, from the Richard and Magdalena Ernst Collection, sold at Sotheby's New York, 22 March 2018, lot 970. Also see an 18th century Central Tibetan Chakrasamvara Mandala sold at Bonhams New York 17 March 2014, lot 41, which exhibits very similarly executed ancillary figures, including Tsonkhapa, the siddha, and protector deities at the lower edge. It is difficult, however, to find a work of comparable scale to the present lot among works with comparable quality.
Thangkas of this monumental size are most often embroidered silk works, which were commissions of high importance in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. An important and monumental silk embroidered thangka bearing a Yongle six character presentation mark and of the period sold at Christie's Hong Kong on 26 November 2014 for HKD 348,440,000. The subject, Raktayamari, bears the same importance as the present subject within the Gelug tradition and Ming and Qing courts. Rakayamari is the red form of Vajrabhairava, and similarly is depicted embracing the consort Vajra Vetali.
The incomparable scale and the precision with which the mass of details is painted unquestionably makes this painting worthy of display among Tibetan masterworks.
The lengthy inscription on the reverse states that the painting was dedicated at Danyakatakuri, at the monastery of Gonglun Jampa Ling at Amdo in Eastern Tibet. The work is dated to 1740 in the western calendar:
༄༅།། མཆོག་ཏུ་མི་འགྱུར་སྙིང་རྗེའི་དངོས་གྱུར་རྒྱལ་བ་རྣམས་ཀྱི་ཡེ་ཤེས་ཐུགས། ། གདུལ་དཀའི་འགྲོ་ལ་རྗེས་སུ་ཆགས་ཀྱང་ མི་ཟད་ཁྲོ་བོའི་སྐུར་བསྟན་པས། ། སྲིད་པ་གསུམ་ན་ དྲེགས་པ་རབ་སྙེམས་ འཇིགས་པ་རྣམས་ཀྱི་འཇིགས་མཛད་པ། ། བཅོམ་ལྡན་དཔའ་བོ་གཤིན་རྗེའི་གཤེད་ཀྱིས་འགྲོ་བ་འདི་དག་རྗེས་བསྲུངས་ཤིག ། རྒྱལ་ཀུན་ཡབ་གཅིག་ཐུགས་རྗེ་རབ་ཁྲོས་གཟི་བྱིན་ཆེན་པོའི་སྟངས་སྟབས་ཀྱིས། ། བདུད་སྡེའི་སྙིང་ག་ལྷམ་ལྷུམ་རྫིས་པའི་ཁྲག་རྒྱུན་འབབ་པས་རབ་དམར་བ། ། མཆོག་གི་དངོས་གྱུར་ཉིན་མོར་བྱེད་པའི་དཀྱིལ་འཁོར་ལ་གནས་འདོད་སྟེར་བའི། ། འཇིགས་མཛད་ཁྲོ་བོའི་དབང་པོ་ གང་གི་སྣང་བརྙན་དྲག་པོའི་གཟི་འབར་བ། ། རིགས་ཀྱི་བདག་པོའི་གཙུག་ན་ མཛེས་ཤིང་བཀའ་སྐྱོང་བསྲུང་མས་ཡོངས་སྐོར་བའི། ། ངོ་མཚར་རྨད་བྱུང་བདུད་སྡེའི་སྙིང་ལ་འཇིགས་པ་སྐྱེད་པའི་དཔལ་ལྡན་པ། ། རྒྱུ་དང་བཀོད་པས་ལྷག་པར་འཕགས་ཤིང་གར་དགུའི་རོ་ཡིས་བརྗིད་པའི་སྐུ། ། མཐོང་དང་རེག་པས་སྲིད་པའི་གདུང་བ་ མིང་གི་ལྷག་མར་བགྱིད་པ་གང་། ། ཐུབ་བསྟན་ནམ་མཁའི་ངོས་ཡངས་མཛེས་བྱེད་བློ་གྲོས་བཟང་པོའི་དཀྱིལ་འཁོར་ཅན། ། མཐུ་ལྡན་རིགས་སྔགས་འཆང་བའི་གཙུག་རྒྱན་ ཉིན་མོར་བྱེད་པའི་དབང་པོ་དེས། ། རིང་ནས་ཡོངས་སུ་བཟུང་བའི་ ཐུགས་སྐྱེད་ རྨད་བྱུང་ རྒྱ་ཆེས་ཉེར་དྲངས་ཏེ། ། བརྩོན་པ་ཆེན་པོས་ ལེགས་པར་བསྒྲུབས་ འདིར་དུས་ དགྲའི་དབང་པོ་རྟག་བཞུགས་ནས། ། གངས་རིའི་ལྗོངས་འདིར་རྩོད་བྲལ་རྡོ་རྗེའི་ཐེག་པ་ཀུན་ནས་འཛིན་པ་ལ། ། འགྲན་ཟླ་དབེན་པའི་འདུས་པའི་སྡེ་འདིར་གསང་བ་མཆོག་གི་ཐེག་པའི་སྲོལ། ། ཇི་བཞིན་ནམ་ཡང་ཉམས་པ་མེད་ཅིང་ཕྲལ་དང་ཡུན་གྱི་ཉེར་འཚེ་ཀུན། ། རྟག་པར་ཞི་ཞིང་མཐུན་པའི་དོན་ཀུན་ལྷུན་གྱིས་གྲུབ་པའི་མཆོག་སྩོལ་ཞིག ། ཚུལ་འདི་བསྒྲུབ་ལ་བརྩོན་མཛད་བཤེས་གཉེན་མཆོག་དང་འདུས་པའི་སྡེས་མཚོན་པའི། ། སྣང་བརྙན་མཆོག་འདི་མིག་གི་ལམ་དུ་མངོན་པར་བབ་པའི་སྐྱེ་བོ་ཀུན། ། ཟབ་མོའི་ལམ་གྱི་རྣལ་འབྱོར་མཆོག་ལ་ སྐྱེ་བ་ཀུན་ཏུ་གཞོལ་བ་དང་། ། མི་རིང་འཇམ་དཔལ་གཤིན་རྗེའི་གཤེད་ཀྱི་གོ་འཕང་མཆོག་ལ་རེག་གྱུར་ཅིག །

mchog tu mi 'gyur snying rje'i dngos gyur rgyal ba rnams kyi ye shes thugs// gdul dka'i 'gro la rjes su chags kyang mi zad khro bo'i skur bstan pas// srid pa gsum na dregs pa rab snyems 'jigs pa rnams kyi 'jigs mdzad pa// bcom ldan dpa' bo gshin rje'i gshed kyis 'gro ba 'di dag rjes bsrungs shig// rgyal kun yab gcig thugs rje rab khros gzi byin chen po'i stangs stabs kyis// bdud sde'i snying ga lham lhum rdzis pa'i khrag rgyun 'bab pas rab dmar ba// mchog gi dngos gyur nyin mor byed pa'i dkyil 'khor la gnas 'dod ster ba'i// 'jigs mdzad khro bo'i dbang po gang gi snang brnyan drag po'i gzi 'bar ba// rigs kyi bdag po'i gtsug na mdzes shing bka' skyong bsrung mas yongs skor ba'i// ngo mtshar rmad byung bdud sde'i snying la 'jigs pa skyed pa'i dpal ldan pa// rgyu dang bkod pas lhag par 'phags shing gar dgu'i ro yis brjid pa'i sku// mthong dang reg pas srid pa'i gdung ba ming gi lhag mar bgyid pa gang // thub bstan nam mkha'i ngos yangs mdzes byed blo gros bzang po'i dkyil 'khor can// mthu ldan rigs sngags 'chang ba'i gtsug rgyan nyin mor byed pa'i dbang po des// ring nas yongs su bzung ba'i thugs skyed rmad byung rgya ches nyer drangs te// brtson pa chen pos legs par bsgrubs 'dir dus dgra'i dbang po rtag bzhugs nas// gangs ri'i ljongs 'dir rtsod bral rdo rje'i theg pa kun nas 'dzin pa la// 'gran zla dben pa'i 'dus pa'i sde 'dir gsang ba mchog gi theg pa'i srol// ji bzhin nam yang nyams pa med cing phral dang yun gyi nyer 'tshe kun// rtag par zhi zhing mthun pa'i don kun lhun gyis grub pa'i mchog stsol zhig// tshul 'di bsgrub la brtson mdzad gshes gnyen mchog dang 'dus pa'i sdes mtshon pa'i// snang brnyan mchog 'di mig gi lam du mngon par bab pa'i skye bo kun// zab mo'i lam gyi rnal 'byor mchog la skye ba kun tu gzhol ba dang// mi ring 'jam dpal gshin rje'i gshed kyi go 'phang mchog la reg gyur cig//

The truly transformed wisdom heart of the Buddhas, supreme and unwavering in compassion, creates this infinitely fierce image for the benefit of sentient beings difficult to tame. The terrifying one, frightening the most prideful demon in the three worlds, may the victorious hero, Yamantaka, protect all sentient beings from now on.
The one father of all the Buddhas, manifesting great splendor, wrath, and compassion, tramples on the hearts of hordes of demons with his foot, the blood flowing intensely red. The splendor of this fierce image, the terrifier, the king of anger, ignites the desire to reside in the truly supreme mandala made of the sun. The lord of the family, on the top of his head, surrounded by the handsome guardians of precepts, completely guards the teachings of the Buddha.
Through the marvels of the teachings, the glorious one engenders fear in the hearts of hordes of demons. By cause and conditions, may this resplendent image be particularly noble and auspicious. By seeing and touching, may the torment of cyclic existence be reduced to nothing but names. By the one who beautifies the extent of space with the Sage’s teachings, who possesses the mandala of intelligence, and who is the crown ornament of powerful vidya mantra holders, by the lord of the day, great and marvelous kindness is exhibited. At this time of achieving goodness through great perseverance, the lord of enemies is always present.
Here, in the land of the snowy mountains, where the Vajrayana teachings are fully grasped, in this unrivaled place of meditation, may there be liberation through this best of all paths. May this state persist without any obstructions throughout all lifetimes. Strive to accomplish this, make the supreme spiritual friend, and achieve the sign.
This superior image, path of the eye, may it appear before all beings. May all sentient beings be led to this supreme yoga of the profound path. May all sentient beings soon reach the supreme level of Manjushri Vajrabhairava.
([made] at the great Shri Danyakatakuri College of Jamgon Lama Tsongkhapa, according to the teaching of his mantra and sutra. May the consciousness of the faithful Wangchuk Gelek, also known as Gyatso, be in the presence of Bhairava. This commission has been called for to assure reincarnation during this time of the reign of the 30th throne holder, the pure third Tulku of the great Palden Gyatso, Ngawang Geleg Gyatso. In the Year of the Iron Monkey, 1740 )

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