June 16, 2014
Towards the middle of the thirteenth century, Chinese imperial court painting typically resembled that seen in the Four Sages of Mount Shang, a work by renowned artist Ma Yuan. It was probably painted at the court of Southern Song Emperor Lizong in Linan, Hangzhou province, around 1225. (fig. 1) The Four Sages are mythic figures who are said to have disagreed with the actions of a Han dynasty emperor. In order to preserve their moral integrity, they withdrew to Mount Shang where they pursued the arts of self-cultivation, thereby exemplifying Confucian and Taoist ideals. The painting’s aesthetic and its technique—masterful brushstrokes and subtle washes of color on paper—epitomise the prevailing canons of Southern Song painting.
Within seventy years, Chinese imperial court art also looked like the image in figure 2. The painted stone sculpture, now in the Musee Guimet in Paris, depicts Tibetan Buddhist protector deity Mahakala in his guise as Gurgyi Gonpo (mgur gyi mgon po). The image is rendered in what Himalayan specialists will recognise to be a Nepalese or Newar style. This startling new imperial court style reflects the enormous social and political changes brought about by Mongol rule in China. Between 1260 and 1368, patronage of Tibetan Buddhism and its arts were one of the largest expenditures of the Yuan state, amounting to several tons of gold and silver, and hundreds of thousands of bolts of silk.
This essay examines a group of Buddhist initiations paintings in a private collection. Like the Guimet Gurgyi Gonpo sculpture, they are likely to be rare surviving examples of a Himalayan-inspired school of art that flourished at the Chinese Yuan court.The style combines Tibetan Buddhist iconography and mid-thirteenth century Newar painting traditions with elements of style—notably textile and costume design—that are demonstrably Chinese Yuan. Moreover, two paintings within the group portray a Yuan Mongol emperor and a Tibetan Buddhist Sakya hierarch.
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