The main figure depicted is Raktayamari, the Red Conqueror of Death and the red form of Manjusri as Yamantaka who vanquished Yama, the Lord of Death. He brandishes a club and carries a skull bowl, while clasping his consort Vajravetali in the blissful union of wisdom and compassion. Vajravetali holds the skull bowl in the left hand, and in her other hand should be a chopper. Against a halo of flames, they stand on the crowned God of Death who carries a noose and club, upon a caparisoned buffalo on a red sun disc supported by a lotus pedestal. Both of the gods wear the crown of five skulls, and in Raktayamari's hair is an image of Vairocana.
Surmounting the thangka, on the first register, are a two-armed Heruka Vajrabhairava (far left) and Manjusri, the God of Wisdom (far right), flanking the Five Transcendent Buddhas between them. The Five Transcendent Buddhas who represent the five elements, five directions, five Buddha families, and the five wisdoms. These are arranged from left to right: the yellow Ratnasambhava, the blue Akshobhya, the white Vairocana, the red Amitabha, and the green Amoghasiddhi. Below them, on the second register, are Green Tara (left), and White Tara (right). The lower side of the panel depicts the Seven dancing goddesses, carrying various offerings.
This extraordinary thangka is very similar to two other large embroidered examples from the Jokhang Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, illustrated by Zhang Zhongli in Wenwu, 1985, no. 11, pp. 66-71. The iconographic forumlaic arrangement of the two other Jokhang thangkas are highly comparable to the present example with the main subject-matter below two rows of smaller figures along the top and a row of seven goddesses making offerings across the lower section. The first of the Jokhang thangka depicts Chakrasamvara with his consort, his body blue and hers red. The iconography is very close to the present thangka with the same arrangments of the deities. The second of the Jokhang example depicts the Vajrabhairava, a manifestation of Manjusri. This thangka is more likely to be from another series as there are twelve seated deities on the first register and a further four below. Stylistically this differs to the 'seven-two' format on the upper portion of the Raktayamari and Chakrasamvara images. It is also interesting to point out that the green ground of the Chakrasamvara is similar to the Raktayamari. The Vajrabhairava, however, is reversed in the use of green embroidered thread on a blue ground.
During the pre-Yuan Mongol empire and early Yuan dynasty, the Sakya lineage was predominant amongst Tibetan Buddhists in China. During the late Yuan and Ming dynasties, the Karma Kagyu lineage gained prominence as preceptors to the Imperial court. The third hierarch of the Kagyu lineage, the Karmapa, visited China in 1333; the fourth Karmapa was at court between 1360 and 1364; and the fifth Karmapa, Deshin Shekpa, to whom the Yongle emperor (1403-1424) presented a characteristically shaped hat, visited between 1405-1409. For further discussion, see S. L. and J. C. Huntington, Leaves from the Bodhi Tree: The Art of Pala India (8th-12th century) and Its International Legacy, Dayton, Ohio: The Dayton Art institute, 1989.
According to Tibetan sources, Emperor Yongle was considered to be an incarnation of Manjusri, and based on his own invitation letter to the Sakya Abbot, was a consecrated Buddhist sovereign, cf. M. Henss, 'The Woven Image: Tibeto-Chinese Textile Thankas of the Yuan and Early Ming Dynasties', Orientations, November 1997, pp. 32-33. By Yongle's invitation, the Fifth Karmapa conducted a number of initiations for the emperor himself as well as funeral ceremonies in honour of Yongle's deceased parents.
Impressed with the hierarch's spiritual prowess, Yongle became the Karmapa's devoted disciple and bestowed imperial favours on the abbot. The emperor also ordered that the rituals performed by the Karmapa be recorded on a silk scroll, which was sent back to Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet, where it was seen by the Tibet scholar H. E. Richardson in the 1940s. Other imperial commissions in honour of the Karmapa included gilt bronzes, rolls of silk and several embroidered images which were especially prized by both Chinese and Tibetans for their beauty and technical excellence. It is likely that this magnificent Raktayamari panel, with Yongle presentation mark in a vertical line in the upper right corner, was such a gift. The present lot with its finely executed stitches, elaborately designed composition, and the Yongle presentation mark in a vertical line on the upper right, all attest to be an example of imperial largesse bestowed on the Karmapa. It is of interest to note in an essay by Luo Wenhua, An Embroidered Yongle Thangka Depicting Raktaymari, published in the present catalogue, pp. xx, where the author cited the discovery of a biography of an important Tibetan monk, Paldan Tashi (1377- c. 1452), a member of those who accompanied Deshin Shekpa to Nanjing. . In the biography, it is known that among the gifts from Emperor Yongle were embroidered Buddhist imageries'.
It is recorded that one of the initiations given by the Karmapa to Yongle was that of Raktayamari, the subject of the present lot, and it follows that the emperor might well have commissioned a thangka depicting the deity to commemorate the occasion, see Pratapaditya Pal, op. cit., p. 62. That the thangka came to the West from Sikkim, where the Chogyal, Sir Tashi Namgyal, presented it to an English friend in the 1940s is not surprising. Sikkim has had close ties to the Kagyupa lineage of Buddhist abbots ever since the 16th century when the ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorjie (1556-1603) was invited to build three monasteries in Sikkim. One of these monasteries, the Rumtek Monastery, is now the seat of the current Kamapa.
An embroidered thangka of the same period, but smaller in size to the present lot, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and depicts the nine-headed Yamantaka (an emanation of Manjusri), trampling humans, animals, birds, demigods and demons below the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjusri, depicted at the top left hand corner of the thanka. The Metropolitan thangka, dated to early 15th century, is illustrated by J. Watt, Bulletin, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fall, 1993, pp. 86-87; where it records "the fineness of the silk floss, achieve chiaroscuro and textural effects", qualities which are equally relevant to the present banner. Also similar is the use of gilt-paper strips and gilt-paper-wound thread.
Compare also two fragments from embroideries possibly similar in size and composition, included in the Plum Blossoms (Int'l) Ltd., Hong Kong and Uragami Sokyu-do Co. Ltd., Tokyo, 1988, sale and exhibition, Chinese Textile Masterpieces: Sung, Yuan and Ming Dynasties, illustrated in the Catalogue, pp. 44-47, nos. 19 and 20. One of the fragments is of a standing figure holding aloft a bowl of curds in a pose similar to the dancing figures found on the bottom row of the present panel; the other is of a seated monk or deity of posture similar to the seated figures in two rows along the top. The first of these fragments is from the same embroidery workshop as an embroidery of a celestial musician in the Cleveland Museum of Art, published by Alan Wardwell as late 14th to early 15th century in 'Important Asian Textiles Recently Acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art', Oriental Art, Winter, 1992/3, vol. XXXVlll, no. 4, p. 250, fig. 8, where it is dated to late 14th to early 15th century.
Also compare the large woven silk thangka of Mahakala of almost the same size, bearing a Yongle mark in a vertical line on the top right hand corner. That example shows Mahakala trampling a figure prostate on a lotus base, the figure backed by a flaming aureole below two rows of deities and above seven dancing figures holding offerings, included by Messrs Spink and Son Ltd., London, in the exhibition, The Art of Textiles, 1989, illustrated in the Catalogue, p. 26, no. 23, where the entry confirms a dating to the Yongle period by carbon 14 testing (fig. 12). This thangka was later sold at Christie's New York, 29 March 2006, lot 275.
A large kesi mandala in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a figure of Raktayamari and consort at the bottom right is datable to 1328 through a portrait of the Yuan emperor Wenzong (1328-32) at the bottom left hand corner, which is illustrated in the Bulletin, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fall, 1992, pp. 84-85. An earlier, smaller kesi thanka in the collection of Dr. Wesley and Mrs. Carolyn Halpert, depicting Cakrasamvara and Vajrvarahi on a double-lotus base in front of a flaming aureole is datable to 1308 or 1360-1364 from the hat worn by the Karmapa in the top right hand corner. The hat is a type worn by the third or fourth Karmapa, but not the fifth, to whom Yongle presented a hat of a different design; see S. L. and J. C. Huntington, op. cit., no. 125, pp. 356-357, illustrated p. 60.
See also a gilt-bronze Raktayamari and Vajravetali group, Yongle mark and period, from the Ukhtomsky Collection, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, showing the deities in yab-yum posture trampling on Yama prostrate on a buffalo recumbent on a lotus base, included in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and Tibet House, New York exhibition, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, 1991, illustrated in the Catalogue, p. 233, no. 76.
The results of University of Toronto, Isotrace Radiocarbon Laboratory, TO-4428 carbon 14 test are consistent with the dating of this lot.