The Qianlong Emperor as Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom

Detail of a pattern
Image 1 of 1

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At A Glance

  • Period

    mid-18th century
  • Geography

  • Material

    Ink, color, and gold on silk
  • Dimension

    H x W (image): 113.6 x 64.3 cm (44 3/4 x 25 5/16 in)
  • Accession Number



Object Details

  • Artist

    Imperial workshop
    Emperor's face painted by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766)
  • Description

    The painting is arranged with Qianlong at the center of a symbolic universe. The landscape background is filled with auspicious clouds and the mountain is the five-peaked Wutaishan (sacred mountain in China). He is seated on a lion-guarded dais that is supported on a lotus blossom. The throne rises from an azurite pond with two dragon kings in the water holding up offerings to the emperor as bodhisattva. An altar table with Tibetan ritual implements is placed in front of the throne. The emperor is clothed in a monk's cap and robes, which are delicately patterned with pomegranate and floral scrolls painted with exceptionally refined detail. The meticulous workmanship and rich colors underscore the painting's imperial provenance.
    The emperor as Manjusri holds the wheel of law in his left hand and makes the gesture of argumentation with his right. In each hand, he also delicately fingers the tensile stem of a lotus flower that appears respectively behind his right and left shoulders. On the viewer's left, the lotus bears an upright sword and on the right, the lotus is a platform for a sutra. These are the attributes of Manjusri and visually manifest the persona that the emperor has assumed. An inscription in Tibetan written in a slender gold script on the dais confirms that Qianlong is depicted as an incarnation of Manjusri.
    In the nimbus surrounding Qianlong, important historical figures appear. On the central axis above Qianlong's head, we encounter an image of Tsongkapa, who was the founder of the Yellow Hat (Geluk) sect of Buddhism. He was also an incarnation of Manjusri, which can be seen by examining Tsongkapa's attributes of a sword and sutra. Other figures in the nimbus can be identified as Dalai lamas, panchen lamas, tutors to the lamas, and other deities. Qianlong is positioned at the center in a manner to reinforce his centrality to the history of Buddhism, past and present.
    In a separate roundel above the nimbus containing the portrait of Qianlong, we encounter a second portrait. The likeness depicts Qianlong's Tibetan spiritual leader and teacher of Sanskrit, Rolpai Dorje (1717-86) [also romanized as Rol-pa'I rdo-rje). Qianlong was close to Rolpai Dorje, and many scholars take their relationship as one of many signs that Qianlong was a sincere believer in Tibetan Buddhism. Other evidence of this includes the gesture of giving his mother for her seventieth birthday more than nine thousand statues of Buddhist deities. Also, in his tomb Qianlong arranged to have Sanskrit inscriptions, which suggests he found this language of Buddhism more personally compelling than the secular languages of Chinese and Manchu, in which he was fluent.
    The Tibetan inscription written on the Qianlong emperor's throne attests to Qianlong's respect for Rolpai Dorje. The inscription contains word play that alludes to the name Rolpai Dorje. The scholar Michael Henss has speculated that Rolpai Dorje may have designed all of the tangkas that Qianlong appears in. Rolpai Dorje himself appears in each one in the same position.
    At the top of the painting, right and left, roundels filled with tutelary deities, or yidams, and Buddhas appear. On the viewer's left we see an image of the Sakyamuni Buddha. The roundel in the center features teachers of the Vajrayana school, including mahasiddhas. In a lower row, roundels on the right and left contain individuals who attained nirvana through their own efforts as well as celestial bodhisattvas. Below the emperor, two roundels contain female Buddhist deities, including Tara as well as dakinis. At the bottom of the painting, guardians, directional gods, and wealth deities appear.
  • Inscriptions

    An inscription in Tibetan written in a slender gold script on the dais confirms that Qianlong is depicted as an incarnation of Manjusri. The text reads:
    Most Sagacious Manjusri
    You who have taken up the role of a mighty Dharma king,
    Supreme among men,
    Abide forever upon your immutable diamond throne.
    Abide forever upon your immutable diamond throne.
  • Provenance

    Private collection, Europe [1]
    In about 1997
    Christopher B. Bruckner, Asian Art Gallery, London, bought from the above [2]
    To 2000
    Anthony Carter, Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, London [3]
    From 2000
    Freer Gallery of Art, bought from Anthony Carter on March 9, 2000 [4]
    [1] A letter written by the London solicitors Rochman Landau on April 14, 2000, in object file, states that they have seen a written statement provided to Antony Carter by the painting’s previous owner asserting that this object was in the owner's European family collection for a period in excess of thirty years.
    [2] The painting was exhibited by Christopher B. Bruckner
    in London in 1997 and published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, see Christopher Bruckner, ed., Chinese Imperial patronage: Treasures from Temples and Palaces (London, Asian Art Gallery, n.d.), cat. no. 1.
    [3] See invoice issued by Anthony Carter to The Freer Gallery of Art on March 9, 2000, in object file.
    [4] See note 3.
  • Collection

    Freer Gallery of Art Collection
  • Exhibition History

    Looking Out, Looking In: Art in Late Imperial China (October 14, 2017 - ongoing)
    Lama, Patron, Artist: The Great Situ Panchen (March 13 to July 18, 2010)
    Facing East: Portraits from Asia (July 1 to September 4, 2006)
    Worshipping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits (June 17 to September 9, 2001)
  • Previous custodian or owner

    Anthony Carter
    Christopher B. Bruckner
  • Origin

  • Credit Line

    Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment and funds provided by an anonymous donor
  • Type

  • Restrictions and Rights

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