The Buddhist deity Trailokyavijaya (Gozanze Myo-o)

The main figure in this painting, Gozanze Myo-o (Sanskrit: Trailokyavijaya), is one of a special group of deities known as the Five Great Kings of Light. While ferocious in appearance, these kings use their powers of magical knowledge to protect believers and help them overcome obstacles to their spiritual development. Gozanze means “conqueror of the Three Worlds”; these worlds are thought to be full of craving and suffering. Here he is depicted trampling other deities associated with the Three Worlds. Showing influences from iconographic multi-headed, multi-armed forms of Hindu deities, this Gozanze has four faces (the one in back is not visible here), each with three eyes. The front face is said to signify fury, the right one anger, the left one disgust, and the back one heroism. Gozanze’s eight arms symbolize great power. His two middle hands make the gesture of anger; the three hands at his right hold a bell with thunderbolt (vajra), an arrow, and a sword; the three hands at his left carry a trident, a bow, and a lasso.

Morning glories (incense wrapper)

Decorated paper wrappers (kozutsumi) like this one held aromatic twigs for the incense ceremony (kodo), an aristocratic pastime that spread throughout Japanese society in the 1600s. Ogata Korin painted several like it, ingeneously adapting motifs from nature for this purpose. Here a decoration of morning glories was painted on gold foil affixed to silk. Elements of the Rinpa style include sensuous, curving forms, defined in ink and color rather than outline; use of the pooled ink technique known as tarashikomi;and rhythmic surface patterns.

As the creases indicate, the wrapper was folded into a square inward from the right, then left, up from the bottom and down from the top. Unfolding the wrapper, one would see a succession of perfect designs: glimmering gold rectangles with blossoms in rich mineral blue, leaves in green or black, and white buds. Scholars believe this example was an outer wrapper, once used to enclose several smaller incense packets.

Table screen depicting the Taoist deity Doumu and her entourage

It is believed that the Dipper Mother (Doumu) grants longevity, affluence, and protection to her worshipers. Following Daoist tradition, the clouds on the screen are in the shape of a wish-granting fungus of immortality. In this unusual image the Daoist goddess Doumu appears inside the sun disk in the guise of Marici, Buddhist goddess of the dawn. She is three headed, with her left head that of a boar. Holding aloft sun and moon disks, bow and arrows, and bell and vase, she rides on a chariot of seven boars (representing the seven stars of the Big Dipper) among the clouds. She is flanked by two kings-warriors brandishing weapons. Below her is a small charioteer, pulling the ropes of her chariot, along with what are known as the Three Commanders: a warrior carrying a flag; Leigong, the bird-beaked god of thunder with his mallet and chisel; and Panguan the Judge, with his brush and record of human wrongdoings.

Plaque with scenes of the life of the Buddha

This small sculptured plaque suggests the complexity of cultural relationships among various parts of the Buddhist world in the period from 1000 to 1200. Plaques quite similar in arrangement, symbolism, size, and material have been found in northeastern India, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Many have also been found in Burma, and some scholars have assumed that all (or most of) the plaques of this type were made there. However, some plaques have inscriptions on the back in Tibetan (including this one) or Chinese. The easiest way to explain this fact would be to say that the plaques were made in northeastern India for the many Buddhist pilgrims of various nationalities who came to worship at the holy sites of the Buddhist homeland.

In this plaque, the central seated Buddha image is surrounded by representations of the events of the seven weeks after the Buddha achieved enlightenment and of seven of the standard set of eight scenes of the Buddha’s life. Immediately on either side of the central Buddha are bodhisattvas, presumably Maitreya and Avalokiteshvara.

Burial urn

This limestone jar probably once contained human bones. It was discovered in a cave in Cotabato province, Mindanao. The rather small size of the jar indicates that the bodies of the deceased had decomposed before the bones were placed within it. A tradition of jar burials existed in the Philippines from the early Neolithic period and continues in some parts of Southeast Asia to the present day.

Burial urns generally come in two shapes: circular and square in section. Typically, they are adorned with simple motifs such as zigzag, diamond, and other geometric patterns. A common decoration on the lid is a three-dimensional human head and arms. In this example, the face is quite detailed. The eyes and nostrils were drilled. The headband with a triangular element above the forehead may have indicated the status of the deceased.

Two-tiered chest with stand

Two- or three-tiered chests inlaid with mother-of-pearl were an integral element of elite Korean women’s quarters, which during the Joseon dynasty were separated from the men’s. Women’s rooms served both as spaces for women and as centers of family activity. Chests for women’s rooms, therefore, were made in a warm style with bright colors in order to create a pleasant family atmosphere. While most men preferred simple furniture made of undecorated wood, most women preferred lacquered furniture lavishly inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Women of affluent families tended to favor expensive red lacquer chests like this one over the more commonplace black ones. Similar red-lacquered chests inlaid with mother-of-pearl were used by women at the Joseon court.

The tiers of this chest are embellished with identical designs: landscapes with figures, chrysanthemum motifs, and simplified lotus flowers splendidly inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The tiers can be arranged side by side or on top of each other. Women used chests such as this to store clothing and other personal items.

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.

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.

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.