Lot 923
  • 923


700,000 - 900,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Distemper on cloth
  • 97 x 72.5 cm
the ithyphallic dark blue buffalo-headed deity, wearing gem-encrusted jewellery and human bone adornments, a garland of severed heads and snakes, with eight further multi-coloured faces, thirty-two arms with a panoply of ritual implements held in the outstretched hands, lunging in pratyalidha with sixteen legs trampling birds and animals and prostrate Hindu deities, all supported by a lotus pedestal against a flaming background filled with twelve multi-armed retinue deities in yab-yum and Manjusri above, with Vajradhara in the upper register together with mahasiddha, Indian pandita and Tibetan lamas, Hindu deities as guardians in the side registers, including Indra on the elephant vahana Airavata, Vishnu, Agni, Yama, Nairrita, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera, Ganesha, Ishana, Surya, Chandra and Prithvi, a Tibetan donor monk officiating below with Yama Dharmaraja and retinue in the lower register Himalayan Art Resources item no. 8003.


Amy Heller, Tibetan Art: Tracing the Development of Spritual Ideals and Art in Tibet, Milan, 1999, cat. no. 80. David Jackson, A Revolutionary Artist of Tibet: Khyentse Chenmo of Gongkar, New York, 2016, p. 306, fig. no. 13.2.


Very good overall condition. Majority of raised gold decoration intact. Some rubbing to the blue of the main figure and some areas possibly consildated. Some staining to flaming red background. Minor losses throughout. Accretion overall. Minimal intervention.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

This dynamic thangka depicting the iconic meditational deity of Tibetan Buddhism remains in exceptionally fine condition, retaining the majority of its original gilded relief ornament forming the necklace pendant clasps, gem-encrusted crown elements, arm bands, bracelets and anklets: for an assessment of this painting technique, see Robert Bruce-Gardner, “Realizations: Reflections on Technique in Early Central Tibetan Painting”, in Steven M. Kossak and Jane Casey Singer, Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet, New York, 1998, pp. 193-205. Compare the raised gold jewellery on an important early fifteenth century painting in a private collection depicting Buddha flanked by the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Manjushri, see Amy Heller, Tibetan Art: Tracing the Development of Spiritual Ideals and Art in Tibet, Milan, 1999, cat. nos. 93-4, and compare the raised gold jewellery and the line of the scrollwork behind the niches of an early fifteenth century Vajrapani thangka in the Collection of Donald and Shelley Rubin, see Rob Linrothe and Jeff Watt, Demonic Divine: Himalayan Art and Beyond, New York and Chicago, 2004, p. 254, cat. no. 65.

The painting is one of the earliest representations of Ekavira Vajrabhairava with the subsidiary heads arranged in a horizontal plane with a single red wrathful face emerging from the flaming hair and the peaceful face of Manjusri above. The style, described as zhal kor, is developed from the arrangement in which the heads are stacked above the central buffalo face (zhal tseg) as seen in earlier representations of the deity associated with the Sakya, Marpa Kagyu, Jonang and Shangpa Kagyu traditions, see Jeff Watt, Himalayan Art Resources, Vajrabhairava Faces Outline Page. This style development is associated with the Gelukpa tradition. Indeed, a painting in the Rubin Museum of Art depicting Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Geluk order, displays a number of stylistic similarities to the Vajrabhairava, see David P. Jackson, Mirror of the Buddha: Early Portraits from Tibet, New York, 2011, p. 90, fig. 3. 17. The format of niches arranged geometrically around the central figure is similar in each painting, as is the inclusion of numerous Indian pandita wearing yellow caps in the upper registers. The elaborate scrolling embellishment of the lotus petals on the thrones is closely comparable in both examples, as is the overall palette.

Compare also the geometric arrangement of niches, the golden jewellery of the deities and the scrolling lotus petal design on a fifteenth century painting of Tsongkhapa, Manjushri and Maitreya in the Zimmerman Family Collection, ibid, p. 92. fig. 3. 18. Stylistic similarities with these two paintings of Tsongkhapa, together with the iconographical arrangement of the heads in the manner made popular by the Gelukpa, suggests that the Vajrabhairava was probably painted for a Gelukpa patron.

Yamantaka Vajrabhairava is the fearsome manifestation of the bodhisattva Manjushri, the Buddhist lord of transcendent wisdom. With skull cup and flaying knife in his principal hands, the buffalo-headed deity bellows with open mouth and fangs bared, proclaiming triumph over ignorance and suffering. Multiple arms, heads and trampling legs symbolise mastery over all elements that bind sentient beings to the wheel of existence, the constant cycle of birth and death, passions, desires and fears. The bull’s head signifies the deity’s conquest of the buffalo-headed god Yama, the lord of death in ancient Indian mythology, thus eliminating the conceptual obstacle of death, yama-antaka, through the enlightened Buddhist condition of transcendent wisdom. Tibetan inscriptions along the lower edge of the painting pay homage to Vajrabhairava and his entourage, and express hopes for spiritual realisation and joy to all sentient beings, see Amy Heller, op. cit, p. 148.