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colour and gilt on navy-blue paper, comprising 40 leaves, all set between wooden front and back covers, the front cover incised in regular script with the title Fo shuo zhu pin jing ('Multiple Buddhist Sutras'), above the subtitles Xinjing ('Prajnaparamita Hrdaya Sutra'), Sanshiwu foming jing ('Triskandha Dharma Sutra'), Long hu jing, Ba yang jing ('Avalokitesvara Sutra'), the first three leaves delicately painted with a Buddha seated in dhyanasana, his hands in dharmacakrapravartana the gesture of teaching, surrounded by 53 deities, the reverse inscribed in cinnabar with Tibetan characters corresponding to the locations of the deities, all followed by the gilt-inscribed sutras in regular script, dated to Da Ming Jiajing gengzi nian ('The gengzi year during the Jiajing reign of the great Ming dynasty', corresponding to 1540)
The Fo shuo zhu pin jing is a title given to a series of Mahayana Buddhist sutras, with the present album containing the Xinjing ('The Heart Sutra'), the Sanshiwu fo ming jing ('The Triskandha Dharma Sutra') and the Ba yang jing ('The Avalokitesvara Sutra'). Curiously, the album also includes a commentary on one of the most important Daoist writings, the Long hu jing (Scripture of the Dragon and Tiger) that is part of the Daoist Canon (Daozang). The Xinjing is regarded as the sutra which summarises the essence of the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, a grand collection of the Prajnaparamita text translated in the 7th century by the pilgrim monk Xuanzang on the orders of Emperor Gaozong (r.649-683). This sutra became a popular text for copying which had a dual function: it served as a calligraphic exercise as well as representing an act of devotion. See an imperial rubbing of the Xinjing dated to 1776 sold in these rooms, 23rd October 2005, lot 382, on black paper with gold ink.
This album is dated to 1540, a period in China's history when Buddhism was fervently oppressed. The Jiajing emperor was an ardent Daoist ruler, possibly as devoted as the legendary Emperor Huizong of the Song dynasty. However, while Huizong was a cultivated and philosophical minded person who venerated the Daoist philosophers and valued the learned traditions of their teachings, Jiajing's sponsorship of the Daoist institutions and his avid pursuit of magic were the less praiseworthy side of Daoism. His interest was narrowed down to the pursuit of magical means to fertility and longevity. In fact, his deep preoccupation led him to withdraw from direct participation in the conduct of the court by the 1530s and live the life of a recluse in his fantasy world completely isolated in the inner halls of the palace. This may explain how a Buddhist album, such as the present one, would have passed the strict court censorship and allowed to be made catering to a wider popular audience. The use of a deep blue coloured paper for the album is also significant and worth noting. Dark blue in Buddhism is a colour closely associated with the healing powers of the 'Blue Buddha' or Bhaisajyaguru and the precious stone lapis lazuli which came to represent purity. Painting in gilt provided a rich and pleasing aesthetic aspect to the work, emphasizing the album's importance to its owner.
For examples of Ming sutra albums illustrated with scenes of Buddha seated under a tree or canopy and flanked by a large number of bodhisattvas, arhats and disciples, see one dated to 1419 of Yongle's reign, from the collection of J. P. Dubosc, included in the Oriental Ceramics Society exhibition The Arts of the Ming Dynasty, London, 1957, cat. no. 65, together with two other sutra books, cat. nos. 66 and 67 dated to 1444 and 1586 respectively. Sutra illustrations of this type are after central Asian and Indian Gupta styles which influenced Chinese Buddhist art from the Tang dynasty. See an early Tang door lintel carved with the scene of Amitabha in the Western paradise, published in W. Zwalf (ed.), Buddhism. Art and Faith, London, 1985, p. 201, pl. 289.
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