Tibet (a Kagyu monastery)
Distemper on cloth; 30 x 23 in. (77.2 x 59.7 cm)
Purchase, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Philanthropic Fund Gift, 1991 (1991.304)
This idealized portrait depicts an abbot of a monastery of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism as indicated by the teaching lineage of early Kagyu teachers across the top of the painting. The abbot is shown as a divine being by portraying him with a number of the Buddha's physical qualities, including elongated earlobes, three lines around his neck, and wheels representing the Buddhist doctrine on his hands and feet. He is backed by a halo and is seated on a lotus throne of a type usually reserved for gods. His right hand makes the "earth-touching" gesture (bhumisparshamudra), which represents the moment the Buddha reached enlightenment. Portraits such as this served many purposes; they proclaim and celebrate a lama Buddha as an exemplar of Buddhahood, while providing an image through which he can be venerated.
The painting exhibits a blend of Nepalese and eastern Indian stylistic motifs. The form of the throne back is typical of the eastern Indian style, but the golden arch formed of swirling sea monster tails surrounding the abbot's halo is Nepalese in format.