Yamantaka Mandala with imperial portraits

 Yamantaka Mandala with imperial portraits

Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), 1330-1332
Silk tapestry (kesi)
96 5/8 x 82 1/4 in. (245.4 x 208.9 cm)

Buddhism flourished in Yuan China and was also practiced briefly in Iran before the official conversion of Il-Khan Ghazan to Islam in 1295. The Buddhist mandala represents the cosmic and sacred realm where the deity (at the center), the ultimate subject of meditation, is surrounded by symbols of the spiritual stages that the devotee must pass through in order to attain enlightenment. This woven mandala, in the style of the Sakyapa school (originating from the Sakya monastery in Tibet), shows Yamantaka (also known as Vajrabhairava), the wrathful manifestation of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, as the central deity. The basic scheme of this mandala follows the convention of the Sakyapa school in the fourteenth century, and the decoration is rich and complex. Color changes and slits in the weave make up the design, and the use of gilded paper in the crowns and jewelry gives a three-dimensional effect. Shading is achieved by combining wefts of two different colors or two shades of the same color, a technique developed during the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279).

The donors depicted in the lower corners, identified by Tibetan inscriptions in the cartouche above their portraits, are (from the left): Tugh Temur, great-great-grandson of Kublai Khan, who reigned as Emperor Wenzong of the Yuan dynasty in China from 1328 to 1332; Khosila, elder brother of Tugh Temur, who reigned briefly in 1329 as Emperor Mingzong; and Budashri and Babusha, their respective spouses. The vertical strips that originally extended from the cartouches, which may have included the names of the emperors and empresses in Chinese, have been cut out.

It is likely that this mandala was commissioned before the death of Babusha in 1330, and completed after the death of Tugh Temur in 1332. The subject of the mandala suggests that it may have been produced for an initiation ceremony. We know from his biography in the Yuanshi (Yuan History) that Tugh Temur underwent two initiations as emperor, and that the imperial family practiced Yamantaka initiations. However, because kesi (imperial portraits) and mandalas were always produced in triplicate or (more rarely) in duplicate, and because no mention of the occasion is ever given in connection with the commissions, it is more likely that these portraits and mandalas were meant to be housed or displayed in ancestral and portrait halls in temples connected with the imperial family.

In the Yuan period, woven images were thought to demonstrate greater skill than painted ones, and from 1294 onward imperial portraits were commissioned as paintings only to be converted into woven silk. The Museum's mandala with imperial portraits is the only complete example known of this singular class of imperially commissioned works of art from the Mongol empire.