AN EMBROIDERED SILK THANGKA DEPICTING VAJRASATTVA AND PRAJNAPARAMITA MING DYNASTY, YONGLE PERIOD |
- Embroidered in silk and gold
- 52 by 35 in., 132.1 by 88.9 cm
Buddhist Art: Sculpture and Paintings from India, Nepal and Tibet, Rossi & Rossi, London, 1999, pl. 10, pps 22-3.
The central scene depicts Vajradhara in the posture of yabyum (‘father-mother’) with his consort, Prajnaparamita. According to the Sakya order and Karma orders of the New (Sarma) School of Tibetan Buddhism, which had significant influence in the court of the Yongle Emperor, Vajradhara is the Primordial Enlightened Being (Adi Buddha), the embodiment of all Buddhist wisdom and the teacher of all tantras. He wears a five-pronged crown, which symbolizes the Five Dhyani Buddhas. An anthropomorphic representation of the Mahayana text of the same name, Prajnaparamita represents supreme wisdom and according to the Mahayana school, the Mother of all the Buddhas. Thus their pose embodies the union of wisdom (female) and compassion (male) that is believed by many Mahayana Buddhists to be necessary for enlightenment. The sensuality of these figures extends to the smallest details, as evidenced in Vajradhara’s delicately curved fingers that clutch a vajra (thunderbolt scepter denoting clarity of mind) and a ghanta (prayer bell associated with wisdom), the delicate rows of beads of Prajnaparamita’s girdle and the intimate gaze locked between the two figures.
The 100-syllable mantra of Vajradhara on the borders, each lotus flower containing a syllable, can be translated as follows:
Oṃ Vajrasattva! Preserve the bond!
As Vajrasattva stand before me.
Be firm for me.
Be greatly pleased for me.
Deeply nourish me.
Love me passionately.
Grant me siddhi in all things,
And in all actions make my mind most excellent.
Huṃ! Ha ha ha ha ho! Blessed One!
Vajra of all the Tathagatas! Do not abandon me.
Be the vajra-bearer, Being of the Great Bond!
Aḥ huṃ phaṭ
Characteristic of the Yongle period is the physiognomy of the figures, with their round faces and broad forehead, along with the richness of the diadem and jewels, the flamboyant flowing scarf and the ornate lotus-petal throne. The format of this embroidery, however, with the flared fabric mounts, closely resembles Tibetan paintings of the period. According to Michael Henss, these early ‘pictorial embroideries, tapestries, and brocades fall in between established art historical domains in two ways: they cannot be classified as paintings, nor are they textiles in the usual sense; Chinese by technique and origin, but Tibetan by subject and composition (see ‘The Woven Image: Tibeto-Chinese Textile Thangkas of the Yuan and Early Ming Dynasties’, Orientations, November 1997, p. 26).
Although no closely related examples appear to have been published, elements of the iconography represented in a similar style can be seen on other thangkas attributed to the same period; see two examples depicting Padmapani, seated on a similar lotus petal throne and stepped pedestal and enclosed within a comparable mandorla comprised of elephants, griffins, lions, makharas, asparas and surmounted by a garuda, included in the exhibition Heaven’s Embroidered Cloths. One Thousand Years of Chinese Textiles, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1995, cat. nos 28 and 30. Compare also two massive silk-embroideries that also feature a vajra and triratna (‘three jewels’) border, published in Michael Henss, op. cit., figs 9 and 10, where the author notes that this motif is rarely seen on textiles before 1400 (p. 30).