Chakrasmvara is depicted here as described in Sanskrit and Tibetan ritual texts, with a “blue-black” body, an additional three heads of red, green and yellow to see in each direction, and twelve arms, each bearing its own tantric implement. The symbolism behind Chakrasamvara’s iconography is manifold: his vajra and bell symbolize his mastery of method and wisdom; his elephant hide represents the destruction of illusion; his damaru and khatvanga represent the aspiration for enlightenment; his curved knife and skull cup symbolize utter egolessness; he cuts off the six defects with his ax and harnesses wisdom with his lasso; his trident marks his triumph over the threefold world; and, finally, the severed head of Brahma hanging from his lower right hand represents his supreme wisdom, penetrating all worldly illusions. He tramples Bhairava and Kalarati beneath his right and left feet, respectively, demonstrating his higher status than the Hindu gods.
In the context of Tibetan Buddhism, Chakrasamvara, Korlo Demchog (Tibetan), or ‘Wheel of Bliss’, arises out of Tibetan translations of a fifty-one chapter root tantra and several explanatory tantras with Sanskrit originals. The Chakrasamvara Tantra is the principal tantra of the Anuttarayoga or ‘Unexcelled Yoga’ classification of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, providing the greatest detail on how to experience the four stages of bliss within the central channel of the body. Visualizations of Chakrasamvara can ultimately enable one to reach the most subtle level of mental activity and, eventually, to enlightenment.
Chakrasamvara is depicted here without his consort, Vajrayogini, which is unusual. However, it is not this detail, but rather the arrangement of his four faces that indicates this form likely belongs to the Mahasiddha Ghantapa’s tradition, as the meditations and rituals he passed forward describes the four colored-heads as depicted in the present painting. The eight dakini retinue figures that occupy the vertical space on either side of the central figure are common to all Chakrasamvara traditions but are notably depicted with two arms rather than four here--another mark of its connection to the Ghantapa tradition. The solid-colored dakini occupy the main cardinal directions surrounding the Chakrasamvara at the center of the mandala while the dual-colored dakini occupy the intermediate directions. They can be identified in clockwise fashion as Yamadhuti, Khandarohe, Lama, Yamadamstri, Yamamathani, Dakini, Rupini, and Yamadahi. At the bottom of the composition are the Five Offering Goddesses of the senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Yellow Ratnasambahva of the South, blue Akshobhya of the East, white Vairochana of the central direction, red Amitabha of the West, and green Amoghasiddhi of the North float on lotus thrones along the top register.
Traditional scholarship might lead one to catalogue this painting as Nepalese for the employment of registers, its copious use of the vegetal scrollwork motif, and the deep jewel-toned color palette dominated by red. In a way, the present painting is actually a continuation of the Nepalo-Chinese style of the Yuan period (1279-1368) which began with an important connection formed at the imperial court between the renowned Kathmandu Valley-artist Anige and the Tibetan Sakya lama Phakpa Lodro Gyeltsen (1235-1280) who served as Kublai Khan’s first Imperial Preceptor. Chinese origins are indicated, however, in its presentation of female retinue figures as genderless and by omitting Chakrasamvara’s consort with whom he is traditionally depicted in sexual embrace. Such idioms are representative of Chinese court sensibilities about Tantra.
When this painting was previously sold in 2001 it was accurately described as representative of the culmination of the Tibeto-Chinese style in the second half of the fifteenth century. The first Ming Emperor, Taizu, pledged to continue imperial patronage of and engagement with Tibetan Buddhism in order to maintain political legitimacy with the ruling Chinggisid surrounding the Ming Empire after the fall of the Yuan. Ming Emperor Yongle made this relationship even more central to his rule, marking the height of Tibetan Buddhist patronage during the Ming period. While successive emperors continued this relationship, Emperor Chengua (r. 1465-1487), once again, placed a more notable emphasis on patronizing the tradition and the present painting is a product of that period.
Previous scholarship had identified this work with the Da longshan huguo si monastery in northwest Beijing, perhpas because three Zhengde-period paintings were used by scholars as the key for identifying the provenance of Chenghua Buddhist painting. The key Zhengde-period thangka is a painting of Simhamukha published in Tucci’s Painted Scrolls (1949, pl. 205), which names a “Da Huguo” monastery and a patron “Daqing Fawang Rinchen Palden”, which Hugh Richardson was able to identify as Emperor Zhengde’s Tibetan Buddhist name.
The many stylistic similarities between Tucci’s Zhengde-period Simhamukha and an associated group (see Marsha Weidner, “Beyond Yongle: Tibeto-Chinese Thangkas for the Mid-Ming Court” for the other Zhengde examples) with the present painting explain this earlier association with Da Huguo Monastery. Like the Zhengde-period Simhamukha, the present Chenghua-period Chakrasamvara as well as a Chenghua-period Simhamukha and a Four-armed Mahakala at the Victoria and Albert Museum (acc. nos. IS.14-1969 and IS.15-1969) and a mandala of Vajradhara, Manjushri and Shadakshari at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (acc. no. 1985.392.2) share a deep palette of red, green, and blue, highly ornate decorative patterns that fill the backgrounds, and a painted red border patterned with gold visvavajra or crossed dorje symbols enclosed in black-outlined rhombuses, imitating brocade. The inscriptions on all of these paintings lie within these lozenges on the bottom register of the composition, with one character within each lozenge.
The inscription on the present painting, however, differs from that of the Tucci thangka as well as other Zhengde-period examples in its content and in that it reads right to left (as do the other Chenghua-period paintings mentioned above). This painting is dated to the second day of the eleventh month of the thirteenth year of Chenghua (1477 AD) - the Emperor Chenghua’s birthday. The V Simhamukha (acc. no. IS.14-1969) bears the same date as does a painting of the same style depicting Hevajra at the Musée Guimet, but three years earlier. Thus, we know that these thangkas were commissioned for ceremonial use surrounding Emperor Chenghua’s birthday and were almost certainly made in a court workshop.