This thangka represents Paramasukha Chakrasamvara ('Supreme Bliss Wheel Integration') and is the archetype image of the union of wisdom and compassion, a manifestation of the Buddha's highest spiritual essence and the embodiment of enlightenment. It is considered the ultimate mother tantra. The female Vajravarahi (mother) represents transcendent wisdom, the male (father) represents compassion for all beings, the natural expression of such wisdom, cf. R. Thurman, 'Wisdom and Compassion: The Heart of Tibetan Culture,' in M. Rhie and R. Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, 1996, p. 17ff. and cover image.
His eyes see the binary world of yes and no, of love and hate, while the third eye on the forehead beholds the ultimate reality. His faces are in the colors of the four directions, blue, yellow, red, and green, representing four of the Buddha wisdoms. He holds numerous implements in his twelve hands, including the flayed skin of the elephant of ignorance. Together with the garland of severed heads they represent the overcoming of ignorance and evil and the conquest and transformation of egotistic mental processes.
The present kesi is one of only a small group of examples in such fine overall state of preservation. The kesi, or slit-weave technique, evolves out of the Central Asian textile tradition to reach a pinnacle of technical and artistic refinement under the Yuan and Ming, never again matched in its fine degree of pictorial representation. Colors are interwoven across the same warp threads in a dovetailing technique to achieve shading. Distinct lines or slits dissect adjoining color fields, where an internal selvage is formed with only a few overlapping threads. Only a few examples were ever produced throughout the Ming, specifically during the Yongle and Xuande period, mostly as special tributes to high Tibetan emissaries or monasteries. The laborious process and prohibitive cost of their manufacture had temporarily led the first Ming Emperor to ban kesi production. This thangka represents the culmination of the kesi technique, the final pinnacle emerging out of the late Yuan textile tradition.
An exact dating of this kesi is possible due to the inclusion of the lama portrait in the upper right corner. It depicts the seated Gelugpa lama Chamchen Choje Shakya Yeshe (1354-1435) performing the teaching gesture, who was dispatched to the Ming capital by Tsong Khapa (1357-1419), founder of the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism, in his place in 1413. Shakya Yeshe stayed until 1416 in Nanjing, where he was conferred the title of State tutor by the Yongle emperor. Upon his departure, he was presented with a distinct gold lined black hat and richly decorated robe, as portrayed here. After his return to Tibet, he founded the Sera monastery in the north of Lhasa in 1418. In 1424 he was once again invited to the Ming capital, now Beijing, but the Yongle emperor died shortly before his arrival. He was then received with even greater esteem by his successor, the Xuande emperor. He cured a serious illness of the emperor and went on to travel, among other places, to Mongolia, Wutai Mountain, and Qinghai to preach Buddhist doctrine and set up monasteries. The Xuande emperor bestowed upon him the title 'Great Compassion Prince of Dharma' along with a gold seal and a kesi portrait thangka, where he is depicted wearing the same distinct hat and robe given to him by the Yongle emperor in 1416, see J. Watt and A. Wardwell, When Silk was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles, fig. 88, p. 204, and Morning Glory Publishers, Precious Deposits, Historical Relics of Tibet, China, vol. 3, 2000, cat. 55, formerly at the Sera Monastery, Lhasa. He died on his return journey to Qinghai in 1435. The Honghua monastery was built there by Imperial command in his memory along with a stupa bearing his relics.
The present thangka can therefore be dated either to the termination of the first or second visit, i.e. 1416 or 1435. The red cloth covering bears the mantra 'Om vajra ayusheya svaha' in the upper right hand corner corresponding to the area of the portrait (see illustration), a generic long-life mantra indicating that the portrait is of a living person and must have been made before his death. A third, less likely possibility, is that it was brought to Tibet during the 1419 mission to Central Tibet headed by Yang Sanbao, who brought gifts for Shakya Yeshe and others, as recorded in Chinese sources, see H. Karmay, Early Sino-Tibetan Art, 1975, p. 82. As there appears to be a seamless continuum in the kesi production at the Imperial ateliers between the Yongle and Xuande period, no further conclusions towards a more specific dating based on possible stylistic or technical differences can be made.
A kesi thangka of the exact same composition and border, of the same set and with corresponding silk brocade mount, depicting Hevajra and Vajranairatmya and including the images of Shakya Yeshe and Vajradhara in the upper corners, is in the Potala Palace Collection, see illustration reproduced from China Nationality Art Photograph Publishing House (Publ.), Gems of the Potala Palace, 1999, ill. p. 231; a further example from the same set, depicting Vajrabhairava, now damaged with a large hole in the lower half and with a later brocade mount, was photographed in 1987 in the Yumbulakhang monastery in the Yarlung Valley in Central Tibet by Michael Henss, cf. 'The Woven Image: Tibeto-Chinese Textile Thangkas of the Yuan and Early Ming Dynasties,' Orientations, November 1997, p. 37.
Two embroidered thangkas of Yamantaka dated to the Yongle period (1403-24), at the Metropolitan Museum and the Potala Palace, also bear a portrait of Shakya Yeshe in the upper right hand corner, see J. Watt and A. Wardwell, When Silk was Gold, cat. no. 62 and detail p. 206, and fig. 87, p. 204.