Superbly executed in ink and colour on silk, with intricate details decorated in gilt, this magnificent painting is impressive for its outstanding quality, and is a fine and rare example of its type. As part of a series of ritual paintings from the Buddhist pantheon of Shuilu, 'Water and Land', this painting holds great religious importance in Chinese Buddhism. During the Shuilu ceremonies, paintings like the present one were hung on walls in temples, representing different gods, deities, and spirits. Buddhist rituals were performed by monks, and prayers were offered to the gods and the deities. It was believed that through this, mortal beings could communicate with the heavens to ask for the souls of the deceased to be saved, and the suffering of those on earth to be relieved. The gilt inscription to the top right of the present painting reads Beifang Duowen Zuntian, which identifies the central figure as the Guardian King of the North, Vaishravana, the leader of the guardian kings of the four cardinal points and a vital figure of the Shuilu pantheon.
With both hands clasped together in anjalimudra in front of his chest, the deity is dressed in elaborate military armour with fluttering celestial scarves, wearing an ornate headdress and emanating a nimbus from his head. His yellow face is finely detailed with thick black eyebrows, a beard and moustache, and his stern expression is heightened by his fierce, bulging eyes. He is attended by two spirits, one with green skin holding the banner of victory above them, and the other with brown skin presenting the deity with a stupa on a tray. The three figures stand on a verdant ground, amidst colourful swirling clouds, all set against a vibrant blue background.
The inscription to the top right of the painting reads He shuo Zhuang qinwang fa xin cheng zao, which could be translated as 'Devoutly commissioned by the Imperial Prince Zhuang'. This inscription is followed by a four-character seal, reading Zhuang qinwang bao, 'Treasure of Prince Zhuang'. The title He shuo Zhuangqin wang was an exclusive title adopted by several Manchu princes during the Qing dynasty, including Prince Zhuang, Boggodo (1650-1723), and Prince Zhuang, Yinlu (1695-1767). In light of the style and quality of this painting, it is possible to identify the devotee of this painting as Prince Zhuang, Boggodo, who was a relation of the Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722).
For examples of other ritual Shuilu paintings, see one with 'The Venerable Celestial Naga King of the Ocean', and the other with 'The Venerable Celestial Goddess Bodhidruma', both illustrated in Chinese Imperial Patronage: Treasures from Temples and Palaces, Asian Art Gallery, London, pp. 30-31, nos. 5 and 6. A painting depicting the Emperor Guan is illustrated by Stephen Little, Taoism and the Arts of China, Chicago, 2000, p. 258. A pair of imperial paintings depicting Virudhaka, Guardian of the South, and Gandharva, Celestial Musician, was sold by Christie's Hong Kong, 29 May 2007, lot 1438; another example, a painting of Virupaksa, the Guardian King of the West, was also sold by Christie's Hong Kong, 26 April 2004, lot 999. A few examples from this group of paintings are known to be in public collections, such as one with 'The Tiger-taming arhat', at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum number FE.2-2010.