Lot 106
  • 106


400,000 - 600,000 USD
495,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Embroidered in silk and gold
  • 52 by 35 in., 132.1 by 88.9 cm
finely embroidered in silk and gold thread on a rich silk background, the bodhisattva Vajrasattva in ecstatic union with the female consort Prajnaparamita, both wearing the regal jewels and accoutrements of the bodhisattva, Vajrasattva holding an upright vajra or scepter in the right hand and a ghanta or bell in the left hand, seated at center on a square platform atop a tiered and richly embellished double-lotus throne, the throne face adorned with a pair of addorsed vyalaka or leogryphs and covered in a textile festooned with golden garlands, the deities within a golden prabha or halo with luxuriant foliate motif, the upper quadrants of the thangka depicting two unidentified figures and further surmounted by Garuda and celestial beings at upper center, with a further menagerie of addorsed fantastic beasts on either side of the divine couple including makara spouting jeweled garlands, vyala, snow lions and elephants all atop small lotus thrones within a field of rolling clouds and rocky escarpments, the upper and lower trapezoidal mounts embroidered with a vajra and triple gem border motif, further embellished with ten rows of red lotus buds with interconnected scrolling stems, each bud inscribed with a contiguous syllable of the one-hundred-syllable Vajrasattva mantra of supplication in Sanskritized Tibetan script heightened in gold    


Rossi & Rossi, London, 2003


Michael Henss, 'The Woven Image: Tibeto-Chinese Textile Thangkas of the Yuan and Early Ming Dynasties’, Orientations, vol. 28, no. 10, 1997, p. 29, fig. 5.
Buddhist Art: Sculpture and Paintings from India, Nepal and Tibet, Rossi & Rossi, London, 1999, pl. 10, pps 22-3.

Catalogue Note

This sumptuous thangka illustrates the Yongle Emperor’s (r. 1403-1424) devoted patronage of Tibetan Buddhism and the extraordinary ritual objects that were produced as a result. It is remarkably well-preserved, retaining the brilliant surface which has been created using a special and particularly laborious satin stitch technique with silk floss (single thread). An imperial quality is created through the extravagant use of yellow, a color that possesses the highest symbolic quality as it signifies both the emperor, and renunciation and humility. Thangkas of this type were produced and presented by the imperial court as gifts for Tibetan religious officials. Official accounts, in particular the court record of daily events, Xizang shiliao, document numerous imperial gifts to Tibetan lamas, and to their temples and monasteries in the Chinese capital and Tibet.

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).