Politics, religion and national security intersect in an exhibition of 18th and 19th century paintings, sculpture and textiles on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from May 7-October 2005.
Mongols, Manchus, and Monks: The Art of Tibetan Diplomacy explores the legacy of the artistic, political, and religious triangle formed by an axis of power in the 18th century between China (then ruled by Manchus), the formidable northern Mongols, and influential Tibetan Monks. The century was a hotbed of artistic and religious exchange between Mongolia, China and Tibet, with the use of Tibetan Buddhism at its core. Artistic traditions were so interlinked that art historians were seldom able to determine the region from which these pieces originated.
The exhibition, on view in Gallery 232, centers on two monumental, richly detailed cloth paintings acquired by the Museum in 1959 but never previously exhibited. Once thought to be Tibetan, new research has shown that the paintings were actually a product of Imperial Chinese workshops commissioned for a major political event of the time—the Emperor’s 70th birthday in 1780. The paintings are crowned by images of Amitayus, the Bodhisattva or 'enlightened being' of Limitless Life, flanked by attendants holding symbols of high rank. It is believed these paintings are dedicated to longevity rituals.
"Until recently, all of the objects on view in this exhibition were identified as Tibetan, because of their Tibetan-Buddhist subject matter," said Katherine Paul, Assistant Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art. "However, current research reveals these pieces to have Mongol or Manchu affiliations, providing a clearer understanding of the elaborate artistic, religious, and political exchanges between these three cultures."
The Manchus, originally from Manchuria (an area just north of Korea), ruled China from 1644-1911 and formed the Qing (Ching) Dynasty. To keep their power and secure their borders required constant and skillful diplomacy. Emperor Qianlong, who ruled China from 1736-1796, was a particularly able politician who used art as a strategic tool. He commissioned many Tibetan-Buddhist artworks as gifts for high lamas in Mongolia and Tibet, as well as for temples and palaces in China. He also ordered special commissions for significant state visits of foreign dignitaries. In 1779-1780, imperial artists worked feverishly to paint, sculpt, and sew images of elegant Buddhist deities to adorn Xumifushou Temple in time for the Emperor's birthday celebrations. The temple itself was built by Emperor Qianlong as a replica of the home of the most powerful Tibetan monk of his time, the Sixth Panchen Lama. The lama himself not only attended the festivities but also presided over rituals to increase the long life of the Emperor.
"China had long sought protection from the powerful northern tribes of Mongols and Manchus, hence the building of the Great Wall," said Paul. "Much later, when the Manchus came to rule China, Tibetan-Buddhism proved a far more effective form of influence, and its arts became the region’s language of diplomacy."
In addition to the longevity deities that appear in the two majestic "birthday" paintings, a number of other works from this period will be displayed from the Museum’s collection portraying imagery devoted to long-life, particularly the figure of Amitayus, whose likeness was frequently given as a diplomatic gift, wishing long life to both the giver and receiver. The use of red paint and inset stones on a silver sculpture of Amitayus is typical of works produced in Dolonnor, the thriving 19th century sculpture center located in what is current-day Inner Mongolia. A bronze image of White Tata, Goddess of Compassion, was among the first Tibertan-Buddhist works to enter the Museum’s collection and is perhaps the largest statue from Dolonnor in any American collection. Today, many sculptures made in Dolonnor can still be seen in numerous temples and palaces across Mongolia, northern China and Tibet.