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Property of a Pennsylvania Collector

A thangka depicting a mandala of Vajra Nairatmya, Tibet, 15th century

Auction Closed

March 21, 04:25 PM GMT


150,000 - 250,000 USD

Lot Details


A thangka depicting a mandala of Vajra Nairatmya

Tibet, 15th century

西藏 十五世紀 無我佛母唐卡

distemper on cloth

Himalayan Art Resources item no. 13825


Height 24 in., 60.5 cm; Width 21 in., 53.2 cm

the thangka inscribed on the reverse:

'This was commissioned as an object for the personal practice of Changphukpa, the eminent lama, the erudite and person of integrity, Lama Kunga Lekpa' (||byang phug pa bla ma dam pa mkhas btsun kun dga’ legs pa’i|| thugs dam bzhengs pa yin||).

Collection of Stella Kramrisch (1896-1993).

American Private Collection, since circa 1970.

Himalayan Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 1978.


The painting depicts the fifteen-deity mandala of Nairatmya, “Without Self,” the consort of Hevajra. The goddess is depicted at the center of a lotus that fills the palace grounds, with twelve goddesses of her retinue on the petals around her, one in the east gate and one in the west, together with four skull cups placed on long-life vases. The palace is supported on a multi-colored lotus surrounded by the eight charnel grounds and an outer ring of fire. Hevajra, with eight faces and sixteen arms, is depicted in union with Nairatmya in the upper left quadrant outside the palace grounds, the three-faced and six-armed Hevajra with Shringkhala in the upper right, two-armed dancing Hevajra in the lower left and four-armed Hevajra in union with Vajravarahi in the lower right, each flanked by lamas and deities and encircled by scrolling vine. A lineage in the upper register depicts the celestial progenitor Vajradhara with Indian adepts and Tibetan Sakya hierarchs. A presiding monk in the lower register is seated beside an assembly of offerings, with the dharmapalas Shri Devi and Mahakala and ten dancing Yogini.


The Nairatmya thangka is a pair to the Raktayamari mandala formerly in the Zimmerman Family Collection, and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (accession no. 2012.444.3), see Marylin M. Rhie and Robert A. F. Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, expanded edition, 1996, pp. 231-32, cat. 75. Both paintings include a dedicatory inscription on the reverse “for the meditation of the Holy Hermit of Janpukpa, Lama Khedsun Kunga Lekpa”, ibid, p. 231. Kunga Lekpa was active in the first half of the fifteenth century, and a highly regarded student of Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (1382-1456), see Jörg Heimbel, Vajradhara in Human Form: The Life and Times of Ngor Chen Kun Dga' Bzang Po, 2017, p. 128, pp. 222-23, where he expounds how his first meeting with Ngorchen is attested for the year 1405, when Ngorchen accompanied his teacher Sharchen Yeshes Gyaltshen (Shar chen Ye shes rgyal mtshan, 1359–1406 ) to Jangphug (Byang phug) at Zar in Tingkye (gTing skyes) to the south of Sakya. At Jangpuk was housed one of three effigies of the ’Phags pa Wa ti bzang po of sKyid grong, and from Jangpuk originates the title of that master, i.e., Jangpuka, the one from the northern cave. 


In about 1418 Ngorchen bestowed on Kunga Lekpa, possibly at Jangpuk, the longest, most extensive, and most complete version of the Lamdre instructions that he is said to have ever granted. In 1435 Kunga Lekpa also took part in Sakya in the ordination ceremony of Kunga Wangchuk (Kun dga' dbang phyug, 1424–1478), Ngorchen's nephew and the future fourth abbot of Ngor. The ceremony was headed by Ngorchen as ordaining preceptor and Kunga Lekpa functioned as ceremonial master. Subsequently, Kunga Lekpa took Kunga Wangchuk with him to Jangpuk, where he trained him in the Tantra Trilogy of Hevajra.


A particular stylistic feature of the Nairatmya painting is the bold vine motif at each side of the mandala palace, with large flowers, buds and tendrils outlined in black in striking contrast with the plain blue background. Close parallels are seen in murals at Riwoche (dPal in the western Tsang region of Latö (La.stod), where mandalas are depicted with similar large flowers and buds outlined in black on a plain blue background, see Roberto Vitali, Early Temples of Central Tibet, London, 1990, pl. 77. Vitali discusses the origin of the Riwoche style, tracing its development from the early fourteenth century murals at Shalu done in a Newar style by Yuan court artists, through those further west at Jonang done around 1330 in a Tibetan hand, the Gyang stupa constructed around 1415, and culminating in the murals at Riwoche completed in 1456 by the ‘Iron Bridge Builder’ Thangtong Gyalpo (1385-1464) and his team of Tibetan artists: Vitali designates the regional style at these three stupas as the La.stod school of art, ibid., pp. 128-133. With such compelling stylistic comparisons, Lama Khedsun Kunga Lekpa’s Nairatmya mandala is likely to have been painted in the western Tsang region of Latö sometime in the first half of the fifteenth century.

The following notes are the recollections of the collector from the time, over 50 years ago, when she and her late husband acquired the mandala from Stella Kramrisch:

"Around the year 1970 my husband and I were visiting the sculptor Bernie Brenner, who was our good friend. The topic of discussion turned to artworks of the world. Bernie said 'The person you should meet is Stella Kramrisch. She has traveled the world over and really knows/writes about it. She is connected with the University of Pennsylvania and I’ll see if she can come over one day soon.' We were known to carefully buy the art we liked So, we met Stella at Bernie’s. Our conversation led to the art of the Himalayas. Stella said she had in mind a specific mandala that she thought would especially please us: Nairatmya. We met her again- this time with the Nairatmya mandala in hand and we were fascinated- eventually purchasing it from her. Our friendship grew. One time she visited us for dinner. When drinks were offered she chose “fizzies.” Having never tried a fizzy before she was amazed when dropped in water the tablets became carbonated and fruity. Later that evening she said we should visit her and see her collection. Along with the Brenners we visited Stella at her home for dinner. Her collection of woodcuts, large and small sculpture, tapestries and oils was indeed worldwide and timeless. We became so absorbed in conversation she realized that she’d forgotten to turn the oven on for the dinner rolls! Stella was having exhibits at the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Art Museum. At the latter (in 1978), she requested to show the Nairatmya mandala as part of the Himalayan Art Exhibition. We complied of course. At this exhibit I purchased a tiny Ganesha sculpture."

Stella Kramrisch (1896-1993), the previous owner of the mandala, pioneered the field of Indian art in the West, and was a teacher of Indian art history over six decades, first at Calcutta University, then at the Courtauld Institute of Art and finally at the University of Pennsylvania. She served as the curator of Indian Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1954-1979. Her personal collection of eighth- to twelfth-century Indian temple sculpture, the most significant holdings of its type in any American museum, became part of the museum’s permanent holdings in 1956. Upon her death, she left more than 700 objects to the museum, including a strong group of early paintings and thangkas from Tibet, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

Sotheby's thanks Dr. Jörg Heimbel for his expertise and assistance with the cataloguing of the mandala.