Mountain spirit and tiger

This mountain spirit (sansin) is depicted as an old man with a flowing white beard, thick white eyebrows, and a voluminous robe. His exaggeratedly protruding head is evocative of the Taoist god of longevity. Holding a fan in his left hand, the old man strokes the tiger’s back with his right. The tiger has red eyes with yellow eyeballs, attributes often seen in Korean folk paintings of this animal.

Koreans have venerated mountains and tigers from the earliest times. The Korean foundation myth features the celestial prince Hwan-ung descending from heaven to a mountaintop to establish a sacred city. Mountains, therefore, became in Korean folk belief places where gods descended to earth and humans could communicate with them. The tiger is looked upon as the most powerful animal, representing the vitality of the mountain spirit. It is the Korean custom of venerating mountains and tigers that led to visualizing the mountain spirit as an old man accompanied by a tiger.

Concretion of ceramics from the Hoi An shipwreck

By 1500, kilns in northern Vietnam were producing vast quantities of high-quality blue-and-white ceramics for export. Vietnamese wares of this period have been found from Japan to Turkey, but the primary market for these ceramics was Southeast Asia. All of the items in this case were excavated from a shipwreck found off the coast of Vietnam near the city of Hoi An. It is believed this ship originated in Siam (now known as Thailand) and was one of many vessels sailing between that country and the north coast of Vietnam. Much of the cargo may have been destined for Indonesia, where similar objects have been found. Excavation of the vessel yielded more than a quarter-million items. The skill of the artists can be seen in the wide variety of wares produced as well as in the range of motifs, from floral to fantastic.

Dedicatory plaque

It has been a common practice in Southeast Asia since ancient times to deposit a dedicatory plaque, together with small representations of gods, flowers, and mystical animals, in the foundation of a religious structure. The arrangement of figures and motifs on this plaque reflects the ideal organization of a Hindu temple based on ancient religious texts. Placed in the foundation of a temple, the plaque symbolically transforms ordinary space into sacred space. Depicted are sixty-four figures of Hindu deities. In the center of the top of the plaque is an unusual composite of Vishnu and Surya. Based on the ancient texts, the thirty-two figures along the other three sides may represent the constellations, which were supposed to have a great influence, both good and bad, on humankind. Figures of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, are depicted at the four corners. In the center is a full-blossoming lotus flower.

A female ascetic surrounded by cobras, personifying a musical mode (Asavari Ragini)

The seated woman in this painting, surrounded by writhing cobras, is the personification of a feminine musical mode (ragini). She wears her hair in a topknot, an indication of her ascetic nature. In India, the practice of asceticism was believed to bestow certain gifts on the practitioner, suggested in this painting by the cobras that surround the female ascetic. Although they are fearsome creatures, the cobras are charmed by the ragini’s ascetic powers and will not harm her. Paintings of musical modes often vary from the descriptions given in texts, yet the source of this image of Asavari Ragini—which is encountered in numerous Indian paintings—can be partially traced to a text that describes the woman as follows:

“On the summit of the sandalwood mount, robed in the peacock’s plumes, with a splendid necklace strung with pearls and ivory, drawing to herself from the sandalwood tree the serpent—the proud one wears it as a bracelet, her body ablaze with dark splendor.” —from The Mirror of Music (Sangita Darpana), 1400-1600, by Damodara Misra; trans. by Klaus Ebeling in Ragamala Paintings

Guardian King of the West (Gwangmok cheonwang)

The Guardian King of the West (Korean: Gwangmok-cheonwang; Sanskrit: Virupaksha) is one of four heavenly kings who protect the cardinal directions in Buddhist cosmology. The guardian king holds a spear in his left hand, and in his right, a thunderbolt on a lotus throne encircled by rays of light. In temples, paintings of the Four Guardian Kings were often hung behind sculptures of the same images. The deities are the first that a visitor would see when entering a temple and would ward off evil spirits to help visitors prepare to enter the Buddhist world.

The inscription at the upper right reads: “The Heavenly King who sees all and protects the western direction of the world.” Judging from several markings in the lower part of the painting, it once belonged to Songnimsa Temple, a sub-temple of the Donghwasa Monastery in southeastern Korea. Some who viewed this painting long ago wrote their names and date in the bottom-left corner when they viewed it.

Woman’s garment (kushuthara)

The kira is the national costume for the women of Bhutan. This kira, called a kushuthara (white ground with geometric motifs), came from north central Bhutan. It is a rectuangular piece of cloth with horizontal sripes, consisting of three loom lengths woven on a backstrap loom and joined together. Worn wrapped around the body over a blouse, it is attached with silver clasps at the shoulders and tied with a belt at the waist.

The Kingdom of Bhutan lies in the eastern Himalayas, between Tibet and India. It is a country famous for its art. While Bhutanese painting and sculpture rely heavily on Tibetan art as a model, the textile art is indigenous, and it is the foremost artistic expression of Bhutan. Most Bhutanese wear homespun cloth, colorful creations in cotton, wool, and silk, with a predominatly stiped pattern. The stripes run vertically on men’s clothing and horizontally on women’s. Textiles are woven on backstrap looms and floor looms. Patterns vary from valley to valley and from household to household, resulting in a rich repertoire of textile design.

The bodhisattva Vajrasattva

The Buddhist deity Vajrasattva sits cross-legged on a double-lotus throne. He holds a stylized thunderbolt (vajra) to his heart and a ritual bell (ghanta) at waist level. Respectively, these two objects symbolize compassion and wisdom, the dual components of enlightenment. In Esoteric Buddhist meditation, practitioners often visualize themselves as Vajrasattva, literally the “thunderbolt being.” The dynamically taught figure, elegantly executed limbs, and elaborate ornamentation show the influence of the Pala art style, which came to Tibet from eastern India in the eleventh century.

Temple hanging

In China, as elsewhere, the lotus (hehua or lianhua) is associated with Buddhism. Flowering in the summer months, the lotus is a symbol of purity because it emerges from the muddy soil unstained. Five of the six long pendants of this hanging are embroidered with jars from which stylized versions of lotus flowers spring forth.

During the reign of the Yongle emperor (1403–1424), many Buddhist objects were made for the emperor’s Buddhist practice or as gifts for the high lamas of Tibet. This hanging was probably part of the traffic of luxury goods that passed over the borders of China and Tibet at this time. Such hangings were used in temples during Buddhist rituals and special ceremonies.

Imperial court overvest

The shape of this sumptuously embroidered vest continued the imperial fashion of the earlier Yuan dynasty, but the decoration is typical of the Wanli reign. Two dragons, rising from rocks and waves strewn with jewels and coral branches, ascend a sky filled with wish-granting clouds. Biting the flaming pearls between their teeth, the dragons clutch the clouds with their clawed paws. These dragons of the Wanli period are characterized by white horns and white spiky eyebrows and whiskers. Their rainbow-colored hair sweeps back beneath their horns. They have white spines and rainbow underbellies, and their snouts resemble the lingzhi fungus near their tails.

An embroidered inscription inside the lapel reads, “Made on the fifth day of the eleventh month, twenty-third year of the reign of the Wanli emperor [equivalent to December 5, 1595]. Length four feet, two liang [slightly more than two ounces] of silk floss [for padding].” This particular day was just two days before the fiftieth birthday (by Chinese count) of the most powerful woman of the period, the Empress Dowager Li, also known as Cisheng Huangtaihou, “Benevolent Blessed Empress Dowager.” She was the mother of the Wanli emperor. This elegant vest of superb workmanship was most probably made for the occasion of her fiftieth birthday.

The Cosmic Buddha Vairochana

This painting depicts the Buddha of the center, Vairochana. His name is translated as “The Radiant One,” and he is sometimes described as the “Sun Buddha.” Vairochana sits at the center and summit of the universe, where he is able to see all things. As a result, he is called “all-seeing” (sarva-vid).

Vairochana is not the only Buddha present in this painting. Notice how the area behind the shrine is made of minutely detailed Buddhas. These Buddhas appear in a pattern called a “pointed shrine” (kutagara). Each pointed arch in the shrine is made of one of the five color-coded Buddhas. Each sector of the mandala is thereby represented in this one painting, and the whole is present in its parts.

Such images, which can be described as “fractal,” present a similar pattern at multiple scales. They occur throughout art of the Lightning Vehicle. A stupa silhouette composed of consecration formulas appears on the reverse of this painting.