A king consults a holy man

This page, from an as-yet-unidentified Hindu manuscript, depicts a king seated in conversation with a holy man. The latter is identifiable as a Shiva worshiper by his tiger-skin mat, his leopard-skin garment, his necklace of sacred beads, and the horizontal marks on his forehead. In his left hand he holds a page from a manuscript, the rest of which is probably enclosed within the bundle covered with blue cloth at his side. Descriptions of meetings between royal persons and holy men, which are found throughout Indian religious and literary texts, were popular subjects for paintings. These texts frequently included stories of princes or kings approaching learned holy men for spiritual advice, which was often imparted in the form of a series of instructive tales. That kings sought assistance in various matters from famous holy men was an indication of the powers—equal to or greater than those of royals—attached to religious figures in India.

Helmet with chain mail neckguard

The unusual shape of this rare helmet was dictated by the needs of the Sikh warrior who wore it into battle with his uncut hair rolled into a topknot beneath it. Uncut hair was among the five emblems of solidarity adopted in the 1600s by Sikhs suffering from religious persecution. Traditionally associated with South Asian ascetics, uncut hair came to represent Sikh religious devotion. The steel and brass links of the helmet’s chain mail neckguard are arranged in a diamond pattern that is said to reflect the churning waters at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna, India’s greatest rivers.

The Buddhist deity Green Tara

One of the most important aspects of Lightning Vehicle thought is its emphasis on female imagery. Each Buddha has a specific female counterpart called a “wisdom” (prajna). Green Tara personifies compassion in action, and she is coded green like her male counterpart Amoghasiddhi. Her right arm is extended in the gesture of gift giving, while her right foot virtually steps out of the tapestry.

This tapestry comes from the lost kingdom of Xixia, in northwest China. When the kingdom was destroyed by the Mongols in 1227, the people of Xixia managed to hide some of their treasures in a stupa—a monument enshrining the sacred remains of enlightened beings—which survived intact until Russian archaeologists excavated the site in the twentieth century. Today, the bulk of the material from the lost kingdom of Xixia lies in the State Hermitage Museum, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Landscape in Snow

Warm-season scenes were favored by Qing court painters, but here Tang Dai depicts a cold, snowy landscape. Both the high mountains depicted and the large seal at the top of this scroll indicate that this work was intended to be a view of the Mountain Villa for Summer Retreat (Bishu Shanzhuang) in Chengde, about 250 kilometers northeast of Beijing. This is an enormous architectural complex encompassing eight Tibetan Buddhist temples built under the commission of three generations of Qing emperors (1681–1780s). Tang Dai probably wanted to share with the emperors this important view of the season when they did not travel there.

Tang Dai served the Qing court as supervisor-in-chief of the Imperial Household Department. He studied painting with Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715) and was granted by Emperor Kangxi the title of Foremost among Painters (Hua zhuangyuan), because the emperor “comprehended deep implications behind the picture” whenever looking at Tang’s painting.

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 battle scene from a Ramayana (Epic of Rama) series

The Ramayana, the epic that inspired this scene, is the story of Rama, a form of the Hindu god Vishnu. A significant portion of the text details Rama’s battle against the demon-king Ravana, who has abducted Rama’s wife. The blue-skinned Rama here readies his bow against a group of demons. In the painting’s distance and in the left foreground, troops of loyal monkeys and bears rally to his aid. Ravana, identified by his multiple heads and arms, sits in the citadel pictured in the upper-right corner.

The Yuddha Kanda (Book of the Battle), the sixth section of the Ramayana, describes the great clash between Rama and Ravana, along with their respective armies, on the island fortress of Lanka:

“Thereafter a furious struggle ensued between the monkeys and the demons, and those redoubtable warriors of ferocious aspect sought to bring about each other’s destruction. . . . Trees, stones, and javelins clashed with tremendous noise, striking terror in the hearts of the listeners, and the appalling clatter of chariot wheels, the twanging of bowstrings, the blare of trumpets, the roll of drums, and the booming of gongs created an indescribable uproar.”

– Quotation adapted from The Ramayana of Valmiki, translated by Hari Prasad Shastri, 1970.

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

Maitreya, the Buddha of the future

Maitreya, whose name translates as “the Friendly One,” is the Buddha of the future. He can be identified by a stupa in his crown, a composite symbol that in the Tibetan tradition is thought to embody the essence of the mind of the Buddha. Maitreya’s hands are in the gesture of preaching, and two lotuses at shoulder level support his special symbolic implements: a “wheel of the doctrine” on his right shoulder and a vase on his left. The wheel symbolizes the sacred teachings, while the vase contains the elixir of immortality; those who imbibe the elixir transcend birth and death and overcome all misery.

The Tibetan inscription on the base reads: Homage to the Sublime Lord Maitreya! Please hold me, dPal-‘Bar [the donor], always in your loving care. May it be auspicious for all!

The image’s proportion and ornaments reflect the Pala style of eastern India, which heavily influenced the art of Southeast Asia and the Himalayas.

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.

China Cove, Carmel, California

This painting is based on a series of seashore scenes that Chao Shao-an sketched during the summer of 1960. On the painting Chao records his motivation for this work: “In 1960 I traveled throughout the United States. I especially enjoyed China Cove and Bird Island at Carmel, California. At that time I made numerous quick sketches. This was one of the scenes. I completed this after my return home. Summer, fifth month, Guimao year [1963]. Shao-an at Hong Kong.”

The painting’s subject reflects the prevailing taste of Hong Kong–based artists for seashore scenes. The work also reveals Chao’s ability to organize and structure the rocky coasts with various brushstrokes, conveying the rocks’ texture and the movement of white seabirds in flight.