QING DYNASTY, QIANLONG PERIOD
This exquisite woven thanka depicts Go Lotsawa, the first Tibetan disciple of the legendary Indian sage Atisha (c. 980-1052). Go Lotsawa was dispatched by Yeshe 'O (947-1024), the West Tibetan king of Guge, to the Indian Buddhist college of Vikramasila in Bihar to study Sanskrit and to invite the abbot Atisha to Tibet to aid in their revival of Buddhism. Such was the eminence of Atisha that his commitment to Tibetan Buddhism in the eleventh century changed the spiritual landscape in perpetuity and he is revered to this day.
The style of the work may be attributed to the seventeenth century master artist Chöying Gyatso (active ca. 1620-1665), an incumbent of the Tashilhunpo monastery, Shigatse, the seat of the Panchen Lama. The artist is credited with founding the New Menri School, a revitalisation of the traditional Menri style with additional Chinese elements of composition and colouring, David Jackson, A History of Tibetan Painting, Vienna, 1995, p. 222. A set of woodblocks known as the Narthang series, probably cut in the seventeenth century and replicating Chöying Gyatso's thanka designs, depict the lineage and pre-incarnations of the Panchen Lamas and form the model for this rare textile image. One of the Narthang xylographs depicts Go Lotsawa and is virtually identical in its drawing and iconographic content to the woven thanka, Giuseppe Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls, vol. II, Rome, 1949, p. 427, fig. 94 (fig. 1). The master is seated in a fabulous wooded mountain landscape, wearing a cap that denotes his scholarship as a translator of Indian sutra. He holds a manuscript in his lap as he instructs the industrious monks before him in their copying of the texts. Grigrug Gompo, the form of Mahakala wearing flowing robes and raising the kartrika in his right hand, commands the lower register in his role as defender of the Buddhist Law. High in the upper left is Go Lotsawa's mentor Atisha, with Vajradhara and his prajna Vajradhatvishvari to the right. All elements of the thanka faithfully reproduce the schema of the Narthang xylograph in which the verse below is translated by Tucci "The translator of the aGos clan of rTa nag diffused the teaching, relying on the protector of the Law Gri gug mgon po: he determined the manner of realizing and explaining the gSans ba kun adus, being the first of Atisa's disciples in gTsan", ibid, p. 413. Jackson speculates that Chöying Gyatso himself may have composed the verse, and indeed to have had a direct hand in the production of the Narthang series, as he was known to write and add dedicatory prayers to his compositions, an unusual tendency in Tibetan art at this time, op. cit. p. 243.
Eighteenth Century embroidered thankas of the incarnations of the Panchen Lamas, are extremely rare although a 18th / 19th century example of an embroidered thanka of the Lamaist monk Mkhas-grub Rje holding an offering to a vision of his teacher Tsong-kha-pa, in the Minnapolis Institute of Art, is illustrated in Robert Jacobsen, Imperial Silks, vol. II, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, 2000, pp. 530-531, also based on a Narthang woodblock, op. cit. Tucci, fig. 97.
The composition of this extraordinary embroidered thanka can trace its roots to a group of imperial workshop paintings on silk depicting lohans commissioned by the Ming dynasty Emperor Yongle (1403-1424 AD) as imperial gifts to Tibetan hierarchs, see an example of one of these imperial Lohan paintings sold in our New York rooms, The Arts of the Buddha, 21st September 2007, lot 33. This concept of placing a seated Buddhist hierarch within a craggy rock cave landscape was adopted, embellished and continued on in the Tibetan thanka tradition. The composition of the present Go Lotsawa thanka is a continuation of that lineage of drawing.
This compositional element as well as the extremely fine quality of the embroidery suggests that the embroidered thanka of Go Lotsawa was the product of the early Qing dynasty imperial workshops. Indeed the drawing of both the rockwork and the aquatic scene in the lower right corner of the thanka (see detail) is reminiscent of similar depictions in examples of early 18th century imperial porcelain including a Kangxi mark and period famille-verte plate in the former Percival David Collection, now in the British Museum, in Rosemary Scott, Imperial Taste, Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989, p.79, fig 48.
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