The Qianlong Emperor as Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom

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 Q

Maker(s)
Artist: Emperor's face painted by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) Imperial workshop
Historical period(s)
Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign, mid-18th century
Medium
Ink, color, and gold on silk
Dimensions
H x W (image): 113.6 x 64.3 cm (44 3/4 x 25 5/16 in)
Geography
China
Credit Line
Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment and funds provided by an anonymous donor
Collection
Freer Gallery of Art
Accession Number
F2000.4
On View Location
Currently not on view
Classification(s)
Painting
Type

Thangka

Keywords
Buddhism, China, dharmachakra, dragon, emperor, lotus, Manjushri, monk, nirvana, portrait, Qianlong reign (1736 - 1796), Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911), tomb, WWII-era provenance
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]

Notes:

[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.

Previous Owner(s)

Christopher B. Bruckner
Anthony Carter

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 Q

Inscription(s)

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.
May there be auspicious fortune that all your wishes are instantly fulfilled.

Label

This unusual portrait reflects upon the political strategy of the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736-96) as well as his personal religious beliefs. Moreover, it is testimony to the multicultural nature of his court and empire. The emperor has had himself portrayed in the center of a thangka, a traditional Tibetan-style religious painting, but he called upon the Italian artist Giuseppe Castiglione, who was a Jesuit missionary serving at the Chinese court, to paint his face. By having himself depicted as the enlightened being Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, the Qianlong emperor positioned himself squarely in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy. The landscape surrounding him is filled with auspicious clouds and a representation of the five-peaked, Wutaishan sacred mountain in China.

The inscription on the painting proclaims Manjusri to be the ruler of the Buddhist faith. By assuming Manjusri's identity, the Qianlong emperor indirectly laid claim to that role for himself. This was politically significant because relations between the Qianlong court and the Mongol and Tibetan residents of the empire were couched in Buddhist, rather than Confucian, cultural rhetoric. The Qianlong emperor ordered thangkas, with himself as the central deity, displayed in the Tibetan Buddhist chapels that he erected in Peking (modern-day Beijing). One thangka that he sent to the Seventh Dalai Lama is currently displayed in the Potala, the Dalai Lama's residence in Lhasa, Tibet.

Published References
  • Culture and Order in World Politics. Cambridge, United Kingdom. cover.
  • Claudia Brown. Great Qing: Painting in China 1644-1911. .
  • Yumiko Ishihama. Shincho to Chibetto Bukkyo-Bosatuo tonatta Kenryutei: The Qing Dynasty and the Tibetan Buddhist World. Waseda University Academic Series, no. 20 Japan. pl. 3.
  • Patricia Ann Berger. Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China. Honolulu. .
  • Recording the Grandeur of the Qing: The Southern Inspection Tour Scrolls of the Kangxi and Qianlong Emperors. .
  • Kate Teltscher. The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama, and the First British Expedition to Tibet. London and New York. pl. 10.
  • Michael Henss. The Bodhisattva Emperor: Tibeto-Chinese Portraits of Sacred and Secular Rule in the Qing Dynasty. vol. 47, nos. 3-5, 2 pts. Surrey. pp. 2-16, pp. 71-83, cover illustration.
  • David M. Farquhar. Emperor as Bodhisattva in The Governance of The Ch'ing Empire. vol. 38, no. 1 Cambridge, June 1978. pp. 5-34.
  • Christopher B. Bruckner. Chinese Imperial Patronage: Treasures from Temples and Palaces. Exh. cat. London. pp. 8-22.
  • Wen-Shing Chou. Mount Wutai: Visions of a Sacred Buddhist Mountain. Princeton, New Jersey. p. 9, fig. 0.7.
  • James T. Ulak. A Decade of Remarkable Growth: Acquisitions by the Freer and Sackler Galleries. vol. 166 no. 548 London, 2007. p. 41.
  • Faith and Empire Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism. Exh. cat. New York, New York. p 45, fig 1.18.
  • Yumiko Ishihama. The Image of Ch'ien-lung's Kingship as Seen From the World of Tibetan Buddhism. vol. 88 Tokyo. pp. 49-64.
  • Ideals of Beauty: Asian and American Art in the Freer and Sackler Galleries. Thames and Hudson World of Art London and Washington, 2010. pp. 82-83.
  • Sotheby's (New York). Sotheby's: Important Chinese Art. New York. p. 96, fig. 1.
  • Jan Stuart, Evelyn S. Rawski. Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits. Exh. cat. Washington and Stanford. p. 120, fig. 5.2.
  • Karl Debreczeny. Faith and Empire: Art, Power, and the Right to Rule. vol. 50, Number 2. Hong Kong, March/April 2019. p. 121, fig. 9.
  • Paths to Perfection, Buddhist Art at the Freer/Sackler. Washington. pp. 146-147.
  • Toshida Tsuda. "教養の中国史/Kyoyo no Chugokushi
    教養の中国史." Chinese History of Education. p. 156, fig. 6-14.
  • Original Intentions, Essays on Production, Reproduction, and Interpretation in the Arts of China. p. 187.
  • Original Intentions: Essays on Production, Reproduction, and Interpretation in the Arts of China. p. 187.
  • Donald S. Lopez Jr, Rebecca Bloom. Hyecho's Journey: The World of Buddhism. Chicago, IL, December 2017. p. 217, fig. 25.
  • Jessica Harrison-Hall. China: A History in Objects. London, UK. p. 241, fig. 3.
  • Luo Wenhua. Qianlong shiqi gongting Zangchuan fojiao huihua yanjiu: A Study on Tibetan Buddhist Painting in the Qing Court of the Qianlong Reign [1735-1795]. vol. 1. pp. 363-368.
Collection Area(s)
Chinese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
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