A remarkably rare and highly sophisticated example of Nepalese textile art, the present lot consists of a series of embroidered panels depicting Hindu and Buddhist deities assembled from a single source into a temple banner mount. Only a handful of similarly-early Nepalese textiles are known, most of which are in museum collections. In the present example, the panels of cotton embroidered with silk display a unique stitch pattern of minute brick-stitch outlined by chain-stitch and an idiosyncratic convention of superimposed crosses applied as decoration on sashes worn by the depicted figures. Radio-carbon dating determined with a probability of 95% that the embroidery was created between 1220-1430 CE, demonstrating that a distinct and sophisticated style was established in Nepalese textile art far before the previously assumed date of 1700 CE.
Each panel in the present textile has a multicolored striped border and schematically presents a combination of Shaivite, Vaishnavite, and Buddhist iconography. Six figures representing different aspects of Bhairava, the malevolent form of Shiva, are wholly or partially depicted in two strips. All of these figures have four arms, three eyes and attributes of Shiva such as the khatvanga (mace) and damaru (drum). They are portrayed with stylized mask-like features and pointed headdresses typically used to denote demonic figures in Nepalese art. The remaining strips depict peaceful deities seated in sattvasana with round nimbuses and less exaggerated facial features. Three of these peaceful deities can be recognized as Vishnu by his attributes of the chakra (wheel), sankha (conch shell), gada (club) and padma (lotus). Three additional figures are shown as rishi, or sages, depicted with scrolls and rosaries. The remaining deities, four of which reside in the outermost panels, are tentatively identified as bodhisattvas, and are portrayed flanked by lotus flowers and seated on a cloud or lotus throne. The organization of the figures in the present banner suggest a schematic layout in the original source of the embroidered panels.
The present lot is believed to have been assembled from a ritual garment made in the Kathmandu Valley and commissioned by a Malla dynasty ruler for private ritual use. Another early Nepalese textile at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc. no. 1995.331), although fragmentary, retains some of its original form, and was likely part of a garment worn by Vaishnavite priests in religious ceremonies. It is unknown when the present textile was reassembled into the present form, but the adaptation likely took place in a Tibetan monastery, where such temple banners are still displayed today. A second embroidered banner of the same shape and style, and likely assembled from the same original textile, is now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (acc. no. IS.6-1989). The V example depicts Vishnu and Lakshmi at center, flanked and surmounted by associated Vaishnavite and Shaivite deities, and Buddhist figures such as lotus-bearing bodhisattvas and the wealth deity, Jambhala, illustrating the syncretic iconography within Nepalese Art. Both the V example and the present work retain curved panels at the edges, indicating that at least part of the original textile possibly mirrored the form of the Metropolitan Museum of Art example.
Apart from the present example and the previously-mentioned textiles at the V and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there are very few other early Nepalese textiles known. An embroidered horizontal-format banner in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (acc. no. 1963-36-1), gifted by the esteemed curator Stella Kramrisch in 1963, depicts a royal couple flanked by warriors and dancers, and likely dates from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century. The V also has a horizontal-format embroidered banner depicting scenes from the Ramayana, and is dated to the fifteenth-sixteenth century.