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Audio: An early and highly important Thangka of Amitabha
Audio: The Collection of Dr. Eugenio Ghersi
An early and highly important Thangka of Amitabha
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An early and highly important Thangka of Amitabha


An early and highly important Thangka of Amitabha
Western Tibet, second half 13th century
Seated on a double-lotus throne with an elaborate throneback over a lion base, wearing patchwork robes and a beatific smile on his face, flanked on either side by a bodhisattva and two monks above, backed by a deep red halo with rainbow border and surrounded by 127 seated buddhas with white, red, blue or golden skin all wearing red robes, the bottom register with deities, monks and donors identified by inscriptions, a consecration on the verso
Mineral pigments and gold on textile
25½ x 22 in. (64.8 x 55.9 cm.)
Collection of Dr. Eugenio Ghersi, acquired while on expedition with Giuseppe Tucci and brought to Italy in 1933
D. Klimburg-Salter, "A Thangka painting tradition from the Spiti Valley," Orientations, vol. 28/10, Nov 1997, pp. 40-48.
D.Jackson, Mirror of the Buddha, Early Portaits from Tibet, 2011, p. 13, fig. 1.10 and 1.11.
J. Watt, Himalayan Art Resource (www.himalayanart.org), HAR no. 60680

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Lot Essay

Typically Amitabha is identifiable by his red body color, attribute of the begging bowl, and peacock throne. In the present painting, his black begging bowl is missing, as in comparable paintings from Western Tibet at this time. Also in this painting his throne is supported by lions instead of his customary peacocks, indicating that perhaps this is from a set of five paintings of the Five Buddhas (Vairochana, Akshobhya, Amitabha, Ratnasambhava and Amoghasiddhi) in which each Buddha have the same throne for visual unity. It is also interesting to note that the 127 buddhas are arranged by color in a chevron pattern centered above Amitabha. This pattern is also seen in a number of early paintings of the same subject, including in the Koelz Collection (HAR no. 92011), The Rubin Museum of Art (HAR no. 281), the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (HAR no. 69456) and two in the collection of Barbara and Walter Frey (HAR no. 69109 and 69102).

In the bottom register the lineage teachers are identified by inscription. Starting at left, the first is Buddha Nageshvara (aka Nagaraja), with white face, blue body and his hands in his typical and unique anjalimudra. He is propitiated to remove obstacles created by naga spirits. The second is Acharya Nagarjuna, founder of the Madhyamaka philosophy, or School of the Middle Way. During his life he was visited by nagas who offered him a teaching from the Buddha Shakyamuni known as One-Hundred-Thousand-Verse Prajnaparamita Sutra , which he then disseminated during his teachings. Each are backed with their eponymous snakes forming an aureole.

The third figure is Atisha (982-1054, here called Jowo Je), dressed in red and gold monk's robes and pandita hat, his hands in dharmachakramudra and turned towards his main disciple, Dromton (1005-1064), whose empty sleeves rest on his knees while his right hand is in vitarkamudra as he engages his teacher in lively discussion. Atisha is the Indian master who came to Tibet in 1042 as the invitation of the Western Tibetan kings Yeshe-o and Chanchub-o to renew the teaching and practice of Buddhism, initiating the Second Transmission. In 1045 he moved from Western Tibet to the central regions, where he became the spiritual founder of the Kadam order. His twelve years in Tibet left a profound impact on all orders of Tibetan Buddhism and after his death Dromton established the first Kadampa monasteries. This painting is one of the earliest known depictions of Atisha and possibly the first identifying him by inscription.

The next pair is the great Indian abbot Bodhisattva Shantarakshita (identified as "Bo-ti-sa-tva"), dressed in red robes and facing King Trisong Detsen (r. 755-797), wearing princely Tibetan robes with his hands at his heart. Shantarakshita was a very well-known Indian Brahmin and Abbot from Nalanda University who founded a philosophical school called Yogacara-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka which united the Madhyamaka tradition of Nagarjuna, the Yogacara tradition of Asanga and the thought of Dharmakirti. He was invited by King Trisong Detsen sometime before 767 AD to Tibet to oversee the translation of a large body of Bhuddhist texts. He also oversaw construction of the first Buddhist monastery at Samye in 787 AD, ordained the first monks there and remained there in Tibet for the rest of his life. At his suggestion, King Trisong Detsen also invited Padmasambhava to Tibet. Both of these figures are seated on cushions and backed by white halos and red aureoles.

In the next group are three lamas identified as Lama Yarjon ("Yangcen"), Lama Namdag and Khenchen Chog. They are visually grouped apart from the others by a red curtain held up by golden staffs and knotted between each figure. It is possible that Lama Yarjon is referring to the famous Sanggye Yargon (1203-72), the third abbot of Taglung monastery, Taglung Kagyu tradition, and the other figures are his students, supporting the dating of this painting to the second half of the 13th century. The first two face each other while the third looks towards a now nearly effaced panel where eight traditional offerings were painted against a black and red mandala. On the far right is another monk kneeling in adoration towards the offerings. The inscription below this scene indicates the painting was commissioned as an act of devotion to the holy lamas.

This painting remains in the same condition as in 1933, untouched and as when it was first acquired by Dr. Ghersi.

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