Mathilde HK and buddhist initiation paintings from Yuan Court – OCS

You like Ancient Chinese Art?

You like paintings and colorful depictions?

You are curious about Buddhist Iconography?


Virupa distemper on cloth, c. 1216-1244, Sakya monastery, Tibet, 55.9 x 49.8 cm., The Kronos Collections picture@janecasey

On September 5, 2014, the Oriental Ceramic Society organized a talk: “Buddhist Initiation Paintings from the Yuan court (1271-1368) in the Sino-Himalayan style”, given by Dr Jane Casey, research fellow in Tibetan Art at the Palace Museum in Beijing. I heard about the lecture by the OCS newsletter and really wanted to discover how Tibetan paintings influenced Chinese Iconography. I knew very little about the topic, apart from the fact that Newar school Tibetan paintings of the thirteenth century were mainly religious works.

What is a Tsakli?

Usually painted on cloth, Tsakli paintings or initiation cards are used in Buddhist rituals and ceremonies in Tibet as spiritual help. Those miniature paintings are depicting Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Yidams, Gurus, mantras, sacred symbols and ritual implements. Among them,  one traditionally notices 51 deity called Bhaisajyaguru mandala  in the Tibetan customs, each representations of which are structured according to a strict iconographic program. Bhaisajyaguru and his entourage are figures more generally associated with protection from harm and rebirth. They seem to be specific to Himalayan Buddhism.

JANE CASEY’s demonstration:

The lecturer examined a set of initiation cards given to her expertise 15 years ago by a private collector. She told us she first described the Tsakli as been an incomplete ensemble of  fifteen-century Tibetan pictures in perfect condition, but then realized they could have a different provenance and restarted her research. She explained to us she discovered they were part of a bigger ritual painting representing a pantheon of 51 figures, displayed in circular shape such as the one below and called the Bhaisajyaguru mandala.


Drawing of the  fifty-one deity Bhaisajyaguru mandala, picture@asianart.tsakli.casey

After tremendous research, Jane Casey eventually ended up by thinking the Tsakli presented elements of Chinese Yuan culture and might have been commissioned by the Chinese emperor to a Tibetan workshop during the thirteen century. Between 1260 and 1368, patronage of Tibetan Buddhism and its arts were indeed one of the largest expenditures of the Yuan state. However, only a very few amount of that treasure survived until today, which made  Jane Casey’s authentication even more difficult.

The miniature painting I liked the most:

Each Tsakli Jane Casey introduced to us measured approximately 15.9 x 17.2 cm. They were all very colorful and expressive. Each deity had its own features and costumes. Among them, I selected the wealth deities for their big eyes and blue colored-skin that I found very beautiful. The figure below is actually called Chandraprabha (“Moonlight”) and his identifying symbol, the crescent moon, appears on top of a Tibetan-style manuscript that rests on the lotus at his right shoulder.


 Tsakli, Chandraprabha, Sino-Himalayan style, Yuan Dynasty, picture @asianart.tsakli.casey

How to know more about Sino-Himalayan Art:

Jane Casey recently published an article on her latest research that is very detailed and persuasive. I recommend to any Buddhist art amateur to read it carefully, for it will be much better than my presentation.

The main problem for anyone who wants to learn more about the influence of Tibetans  on Chinese art at that time is the very little amount of available paintings. Many of the Yuan court works matching that period have been destroyed after the Mongol reign and it remains difficult to be absolutely sure of the effective provenance of the beautiful Tsakli Jane Casey presented us.


Topics and Keywords:

Solo: topics to focus on

Tsakli, Tibetan Art, Chinese art,  Yuan Court, Buddha, Buddhist deities, ancient painting, initiation cards,

Combo: on the same topic

Early Portrait Paintings in Tibet by Jane Casey, online article.

OCS Lecture:

“Buddhist Initiation Paintings from the Yuan court (1271-1368) in the Sino-Himalayan style” –  5 September 2014 – Hong Kong – Jane Casey

Admission fee for non members: 150 HKD



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