The present thangka represents the powerful impact of Tibetan influence on Chinese religious embroidery. The tradition of fabric thangkas with Tibetan-Buddhist motifs extends back to at least the 13th century, specifically to the Tangut Kingdom of Xixia at the geographical and cultural crossroads between China and Tibet. During the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), Khubilai Khan forged strong political links to Tibet, funding monasteries and appointing the Buddhist lama Phagspa as his advisor. Of seminal significance for the emergence of woven images and embroidered thangkas was the appointment of the highly skilled and talented Nepalese artist Anige (1245-1306) as head of the Imperial Manufactories Commission at the beginning of 1278. Having worked first in Tibet, he was familiar with painted thangka imagery and was a highly talented painter in his own right. As a new feature, the commission set out to weave and embroider religious images and imperial portraits. While enormously costly, textile images ranked at the top, as a collection of writings compiled in the Yuan text Jinshi Dadian indicates: "To weave an image so that it seems to come alive is not something that can be equaled by the application of colors [in painting]." See J. Watt and A. Wardwell, When Silk was Gold, New York, 1997, pp. 60-1, for a further discussion of the importance of these woven images.
The early Ming emperors were eager to retain the good relations with Tibet forged by their predecessors, and during the Yongle and Xuande periods, in particular, numerous imperial commissions of bronze sculpture, textiles and works of art incorporating Lamaist or Tibetan Buddhist iconography were sent to Tibet as tribute. It is possible that the present thangka may have been one of these commissions.
Garudas trace their origins to the Hindu religion, where they are known as the vanquishers of the nagas, mythical serpents which are perhaps represented in the current image. In the Buddhist tradition, Garudas are thought to be guardians of Mount Meru, and are the vehicle of the deity Vajrapani.
Depictions of Garuda in the early textile art of China appear to be quite rare. However, refer to a thangka in the Cleveland Museum of Art, which is composed of a 17th century Tibetan painting of Vajrapani flanked by two embroidered silk panels of Garuda, which date to the Yuan dynasty. While slightly earlier in date than the present lot, it is interesting to note the strong similarities in the depiction of Garuda, who in the Cleveland example is shown in a similar pose amidst clouds and above the waves of the Daoist Eastern Ocean.