Tibet, 17th/18th Century
Distemper and gilt on cloth
104 x 61 cm; Painting: 59 x 40 cm
Shri Devi is a Tantric Buddhist Goddess. Her primary function is of protection, and she is more specifically the principal Wisdom protector of Himalayan and Tibetan Buddhism. There are numerous forms and variations of Shri Devi, her wrathful appearance dispels darkness and evil.
The present painting exhibits a rare combination of energy and harmony in the masterful, incisive brushstroke of the artist. Meticulous attention has been rendered to each figure in their ferocious expressions and gestures, the attributes they bear, and the formal plasticity of their surroundings. The present thangka is a Tibetan nagthang or black-ground painting, a style which reached its apogee in the 17th -18th century. It lends itself to magnificent effects in the dramatic contrast between light and darkness. Such striking thangkas are created by painting the entire surface black and then applying lighter colours over it. The application of gold is also prolific and accentuates the visual drama, and the cloth border that frames the present painting is exquisite, with a deep dark blue cloth extensively embroidered with golden thread.
The Goddess rides a mule across the horizon, amidst red flames and thick black smoke, each element masterfully rendered by the artist. She is Dorje Rabtenma, with bare breasts but wearing the skins of several humans on her shoulders. Her ferocious expression, with three large eyes, thick eyebrows and a downward open mouth, is intensified by her flaming hair lifted into the air. She bears a flaming sword on her right hand, a tally stick fastened to her belt, a ball of thread strung to the back of her mule, and abundant golden jewellery. On her left hand she holds the head of a large serpent, and she uses the body of her dead son as a saddle to sit on. There is no mistaking her power and determination as protector, made even clearer by her formidable size.
Other figures surround the magnificent goddess. Leading the Shri Devi’s mule to the left is Makaramukha, her half-human half-animal attendant whose red female body is topped by a water-monster head with green wavy hair. Below the Shri Devi’s to the right is Simhamukha, with blue skin and orange hair, who is retinue to the Shri Devi and is seen riding a black horse and piercing a human body with a spear.
The Five Long Life Sisters populate the scene and contribute to the exuberant expressivity of the painting. They are powerful earth and mountain goddesses of protection, who play a crucial role in keeping the harmony of the elements.
Tashi Tseringma, the leader of the sisters, rides a snow lioness below the Shri Devi, while Miyo Lozangma can be seen on a tigress above. Tekar Drozangma stands to the right of the Shri Devi and rides a large serpent or dragon, and Chopen Drinzangma can be seen on the top right riding a bull, while Ting Gyi Shal Zangma is at the bottom right riding a mare. They all wear golden jewellery, and bear either ornamented cloth garments, or human skins.
The Indian mystic Padmasambhava (Lotus-Born) is also depicted, seated above the Shri Devi, with a serene expression and flanked by the sun and moon. He was a tantric master who visited and taught in Tibet in the eighth century, and whose influence is attested by his continued representation over many centuries in works such as this.
Important Private collection, Switzerland.
Himalayan Art Resources: Item no. 77103.
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