The interiors of many of the rooms in imperial palaces of the Qing dynasty were vast and dark. To have visual impact, objects within them had to be large and brightly colored. Decorative techniques that took advantage of all available light had great appeal. Using pieces of highly reflective shell in a dark lacquer ground was very effective; this was a technique that reached its peak in the early part of the Qing dynasty. This entire cabinet is covered with black lacquer with pictorial designs appliquéd with mother-of-pearl. This inlay technique is called “flat application” (pintuo) in which tiny precut pieces of mother-of-pearl of varying thickness, forms, and sizes are arranged over a lacquered surface. The pieces are then treated in such a way to make them flat and smooth with the surface. 

In an imperial setting a bright and shiny surface was not enough—the motifs had to convey a clear meaning to anyone who might see them. Depicted on the two doors of this cabinet are foreign envoys paying tribute to the Chinese military. This cabinet was likely created during or shortly after the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1662–1722), a time of military expansion and power in China. The cabinet celebrates that power.

Crowned and bejeweled Buddha protected by a serpent

The meanings of this sort of Buddha image are not easy to ascertain. At one level, there is a reference to a moment in the life of the Buddha. In the sixth week after the Enlightenment, as the Buddha sat meditating, a storm broke out and a mighty serpent spread its hoods over the Buddha to shelter him. Representations of the Buddha protected by the serpent, while rare in Indian art, appear frequently in the arts of Cambodia and Thailand of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In both India and Southeast Asia serpents are associated with the waters of the earth, but in ancient Angkor, legends suggest that their association with the life-giving powers of water in agriculture made them even more important.

The Buddha is here shown crowned and bejeweled, as he would not have been in the weeks after the Enlightenment, so something more was meant than a reference to an episode of his life. Because the prominent school of Buddhism in Angkor in this period assumed the existence of multiple Buddhas, the crowned, serpent-protected Buddha is thought to represent a supreme Buddha.

One-faced linga

Temples devoted to the Hindu god Shiva often contain in their innermost sanctums a linga, or phallic emblem of this deity. A highly complex symbol, the linga represents the generative powers associated with Shiva. While most linga are plain in appearance, some—like this example—depict the face of Shiva. It includes other recognizable emblems of Shiva: matted hair (representing his asceticism and detachment from worldly concerns), the crescent moon in his hair (sometimes interpreted as a symbol of time), and the third eye in his forehead (indicating Shiva’s penetrating vision and wisdom that pierce worldly illusions).

Shiva’s association with the linga form derives from his asceticism. In Indian culture, ascetics were thought capable of attaining extraordinary powers—sometimes rivaling those of the gods—through meditation, austerities, and strict self-denial. Because their practices included celibacy and strict control of reproductive fluids, the upright phallus came to represent accumulated stores of energy and creative ability. Shiva, the foremost of ascetics, possesses powers vast enough to generate creation. The linga refers both to this ability and to asceticism’s potential rewards, which include escaping rebirth.

The Buddhist deity Achala Vidyaraja (Fudo Myoo)

Fudo Myoo, “the immovable one,” is one of the powerful Five Bright Kings of Shingon, a Japanese school of Esoteric Buddhism. This popular god is believed to protect the religion and its followers, and as a result many sculptures and paintings of him were made for temples throughout Japan. Images of Fudo are easily recognizable: his long, straight hair is pulled to the left of his head and arranged in a braid that hangs down his chest. He holds a sword and a rope, symbols of his power, in his left and right hands respectively. His threatening visage is an expression of his ability to ward off evil forces. Here Fudo is seated on a tiered platform of piled angular rocks, surrounded by a swirling flame.

Open only to the initiated, the Esoteric Buddhist ritual that took place before the painted image involved the burning of goma, a holy fire of cedar sticks. As a result, the upper part of the painting is blackened with oily smoke, partially obscuring the face and flames.

Traveling in deep mountains

This work depicts an official visiting a recluse in a mountain setting, a theme that has been featured in Chinese literature for more than 2000 years and has been a favorite of artists specializing in the figures-in-landscape genre. The official is depicted in the bottom left riding a donkey. He has just crossed a bridge and is followed by a servant carrying belongings on his shoulders. The official’s destination, the hut of an old master who lives deep in the mountains, is shown in the middle section of the painting. To the right is a village complex with a number of figures involved in various pursuits. The middle ground of this scroll is filled with mountains, temples, and forests. On the left side is a man walking on a trail. The upper left presents a thatched house in which an old master is meeting a visitor. This work is executed in the so-called blue-and-green landscape style, which was established during the Tang dynasty (617–906) and employed by later artists when an archaic yet decorative atmosphere was desired.

The Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu combined as Harihara

The two foremost male gods of Hinduism, Shiva and Vishnu, are sometimes shown combined. Usually the combined representations, like this one, are divided in half vertically, with Shiva on the image’s right. Here, the division can be seen most easily in the headdress: the Shiva half has an ascetic’s tied-up locks of hair, and the Vishnu half has part of a cylindrical crown. Also, the two earrings are different, as is the treatment of the hair falling over the two shoulders.

The Hindu deity Vishnu

This image represents one of the many artistic styles of southern India. This southern Vishnu is carved with profuse, minute decoration. Here there is much piercing and undercutting, freeing parts of the decoration from the stone block. The crowns, for instance, almost begin to resemble basketry. Elsewhere, the decoration makes some objects hard to recognize. The conch shell and war discus Vishnu holds in his upper hands have long, hanging garlands that look like handles. Vishnu is flanked by smaller images of his wives. At the upper edges of the backslab are very small representations of all ten of his incarnations.

The Hindu deity Parvati

Parvati, the wife of Shiva, holds in her left hand a now-broken figure of her child Skanda; her other child, the elephant-headed Ganesha, can be seen near her right foot. Beneath her lotus throne is the lion she customarily rides. Above her, elephants pour water over her in a gesture of homage.

The Buddhist deity Naro Dakini

The central figure in this painting is literally a “sky walker” (dakini). She is a powerful female spiritual guide who travels at will through the emptiness of space (shunyata)—the ultimate reality in Himalayan Buddhism. To overcome the terrifying and seductive aspects of worldly life, dakini teach visualization techniques that employ both fierce and sexual imagery. Since the conventional world typically censors
such imagery, Naro Dakini instead dwells and teaches in cemeteries.

Above Naro Dakini appear the two cosmic Buddhas Vajradhara and Vajradharma. In Buddhist thought, these two Buddhas authored the teachings that Naro Dakini transmits. Below Naro Dakini appear a series of guardians that protect practitioners of her teachings from harm. From left to right, they are the Dancing Skeletons (Chitipati), Great Time (Mahakala), and a long-life goddess (Tseringma).

The bull Nandi

The bull Nandi is the faithful mount of the Hindu deity Shiva. In southern India, a large sculpture of Nandi would usually be placed in front of the main sanctuary of a temple to Shiva. It would face toward the sanctuary, so that Nandi could gaze adoringly at the representation of his master enshrined there. Because of this orientation, worshippers entering the temple compound would approach the sculpture of Nandi from behind.

Here Shiva’s bull, which weighs 4,000 pounds, is depicted in a kneeling position and adorned with garlands, strings of bells, an elaborate blanket, and other decorations carved in the stone. In the temple, it would have been wreathed in real flowers and fabrics.