Scholar of Emptiness: The Manjusri Mural from Guangsheng Monastery
Posted April 11th, 2012 at 12:04 PM by ghostexorcist
Updated September 17th, 2012 at 02:03 PM by ghostexorcist
Updated September 17th, 2012 at 02:03 PM by ghostexorcist
“Wenshu, Bodhisattva of Wisdom, at a Writing Table” (China, 1354, glue tempera on mud and straw wall, Cincinnati Art Museum) is a large wall mural which depicts the Bodhisattva Manjusri (Ch. Wenshu, 文殊) sitting at a writing table with a calligraphy brush in hand, poised to write some words of wisdom, and his feet resting on a stool-like lotus throne. He wears the princely crown, robes, and jewelry associated with Bodhisattvas, and his head is engulfed in a fire halo (mandorla), a sign of his divinity. Manjusri is accompanied by an African slave bearing a canvas bag containing scrolls of the celestial scholar’s past musings. Hierarchy of scale is employed to show the Bodhisattva’s importance by depicting his slave in a diminutive stature. The mural is divided into thirds by diagonal lines that trisect the piece. The majority of Manjusri’s head and torso are contained within the lines comprising the top of the backrest of his chair and the front edge of the table at which he is working. This serves the purpose of guiding the viewer’s eyes to focus on the Bodhisattva’s literary pursuits. The backrest has a very ornate decoration of a flaming wish-granting pearl (Cintamani). Normally a symbol of the Bodhisattvas Guanyin (观音) or Ksitigharba (地藏), it is sometimes used to refer to one of the “Three Jewels of Buddhism,” those being Buddhist law (dharma), the Buddhist community (Sangha), and the Buddha himself. Chinese legend associates it with a pearl owned by the Dragon King of the Sea. The overall domestic setting appears as if Manjusri is on earth, but the celestial clouds wafting through the air above his head betrays his location in his celestial abode atop Mt. Wutai (五台山). The color palette consists of shades of brown, gold, white, red, and green, the latter being the most prominent. It is used to color the clothing, jewelry, crown, lotus throne, and furniture. Green (青, qinq) was most likely used in such abundance because the Chinese traditionally associate the color with “tranquility.”
This depiction of Manjusri is much different from his traditional iconography. He is usually portrayed in Buddhist art as brandishing a flaming sword and holding a book while sitting on a lotus throne, or sitting on his celestial vehicle, the white (or blue) lion. Chinese Buddhist cave paintings from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) show this lion being tended by an African slave (such unfortunate people sparked the imagination of the Chinese when they were first brought to the Middle Kingdom by Arab merchants during this time). In the case of the mural, the sword and book have been replaced by a calligraphy brush and an empty scroll, while the slave has switched from tending the lion to bearing his master’s completed work. This emphasis on Manjusri’s scholarly abilities is not only based on his position as the Bodhisattva of Wisdom—derived from his mention in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (c. 100 BCE)—but his appearance in the Vimalakirti Sutra (c. 100). The sutra tells of how the Buddha chose the Bodhisattva to call upon the malingering householder whom no other disciple wanted to visit due to his supernatural intellect. He and Vimalakirti debate Buddhist doctrine before a crowd of celestial onlookers until they realize that they are both equally versed in the dharma. After being translated into Chinese several times between the 2nd and 5th century CE, the sutra became extremely popular among the Chinese due to the prevalent imperial exam system, which required those wishing to gain a government post to study the Confucian Classics. This is evidenced by the abundance of Chinese scholar paintings from the Tang through the Yuan Dynasty depicting the debate.
Detail from Wang Zhenpeng's “Vimalakirti and the Doctrine of Nonduality” (1308) (full version here).
Notice the similarity to Manjusri's seated posture from the mural.
The style of painting and the seated posture of Manjusri is very similar to a Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) ink painting by the Jurchen artist Ma Yunqing (马云卿, fl. 1229) called “Vimalakirti Expounds Buddhist Sutras” (c. 1229). The work portrays both orators surrounded by monks, officials, and heavenly beings while debating each other from separate couches. All of the figures are painted with the realistic facial features, proportions, and drapery known from the Northern Song Dynasty School of art. This is because Ma’s work was based on an earlier Chinese ink painting by the Northern Song artist Li Gonglin (李公麟, 1049-1106). The fluttering of the drapery on the Bodhisattva’s sleeve and pants from the mural is related to a motif common in 12th century Song Buddhist murals at Mt. Wutai in Shanxi province, the same province where Guangsheng (廣勝, Vast Triumph) monastery, the institution housing the Manjusri wall painting, is located. It is my opinion that the mural was ultimately influenced by a 14th century copy of Ma’s work by Wang Zhenpeng (王振鹏, active 1280–1329) called “Vimalakirti and the Doctrine of Nonduality” (1308). There are two reasons for this. First, Wang, a court painter, was commissioned to produce the painting by the prince who would eventually become Yuan Emperor Renzong (元仁宗, r. 1311-1320). Second, Guangsheng monastery had close ties to the Yuan court. Apart from being the location where royal birthdays were held, the monastery received the gift of a collection of Buddhist Canon from the Mongol rulers. This means that the court could have commissioned an artist familiar with Wang's work to paint the mural in 1354, when the painting is dated to.
It is important to note that the grounds of Guangsheng monastery included a government temple to a local mountain deity. Therefore, this synchronization between the “Three Religions” (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism) further explains why a Buddhist deity like Manjusri would be depicted as partaking in such a Confucian activity.
The mural was originally housed in the main hall of the lower complex of the Guangsheng monastery in southern Shanxi province. The monastery was built during the Tang Dynasty, but had to be rebuilt after an earthquake damaged it in 1303. Construction of the main hall was finished in 1309. A scientific analysis of the murals from the main hall shows that the walls were covered with a mixture of mud and straw. This was then covered with a wash of white kaolin clay in preparation for the painting. The glue-based tempera paint used to color the work received pigment from minerals. For instance, the green used to color the furniture and clothing was derived from atacamite, a type of crystalline copper, or possibly even corroded bronze.
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 Alice Getty, The Gods of Northern Buddhism: Their History and Iconography (New York: Dover Publications, 1988), 186.
 Patricia Bjaaland Welch, Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Pub, 2008), 188.
 Ibid, 222.
 Theodorus Petrus van Baaren and Karel Rijk van Kooij, Iconography of Religions. Section 13, Fasc. 15, Indian Religions, Religion in Nepal (Leiden: Brill, 1978), 23. See also Welch, 188.
 Lilla Russell-Smith, Uygur Patronage in Dunhuang: Regional Art Centres on the Northern Silk Road in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 216. For information on the presence of African slaves in China, see Julie Wilensky, “The Magical Kunlun and “Devil Slaves”: Chinese Perceptions of Dark-Skinned People and Africa Before 1500,” Sino-Platonic Papers 122 (July, 2002): 1-56, http://www.sino-platonic.org/complet...ese_africa.pdf (accessed April 8, 2012).
 Damien Keown, A Dictionary of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). For the date, see Linnart Mäll, Studies in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā and Other Essays (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2005), 96.
 Burton Watson, The Vimalakirti Sutra (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 64-74
 Craig Clunas, Art in China (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997), 66.
 See Susan Bush, “Five Paintings of Animals Subjects or Narrative Themes and Their Relevance to Chin Culture,” In China Under Jurchen Rule: Essays on Chin Intellectual and Cultural History, Ed. Hoyt Cleveland Tillman (Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press, 1995), 201.
 Ibid, 207.
 Ibid, 197-198.
 Clunas, 65.
 Jing Anning, The Water God's Monastery of the Guangsheng Monastery: Cosmic Function of Art, Ritual and Theater (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 203.
 Leslie H. Rainer and Angelyn Bass Rivera, The Conservation of Decorated Surfaces on Earthen Architecture: Proceedings from the International Colloquium Organized by the Getty Conservation Institute and the National Park Service, Mesa Verde National Park, Colo., USA, September 22-25, 2004 (Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2006), 67-68.
 Jing, 202.
 Rainer, 69.
Baaren, Theodorus Petrus van, and Karel Rijk van Kooij. Iconography of Religions. Section 13, Fasc. 15, Indian Religions, Religion in Nepal. Leiden: Brill, 1978.
Bush, Susan. “Five Paintings of Animals Subjects or Narrative Themes and Their Relevance to Chin Culture.” In China Under Jurchen Rule: Essays on Chin Intellectual and Cultural History. Ed. Hoyt Cleveland Tillman. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press, 1995.
Clunas, Craig. Art in China. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997.
Elman, Benjamin A. A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2000.
Getty, Alice. The Gods of Northern Buddhism: Their History and Iconography. New York: Dover Publications, 1988.
Jing, Anning. The Water God's Monastery of the Guangsheng Monastery: Cosmic Function of Art, Ritual and Theater. Leiden: Brill, 2001
Keown, Damien. A Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Mäll, Linnart. Studies in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā and Other Essays. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2005.
Rainer, Leslie H., and Angelyn Bass Rivera. The Conservation of Decorated Surfaces on Earthen Architecture: Proceedings from the International Colloquium Organized by the Getty Conservation Institute and the National Park Service, Mesa Verde National Park, Colo., USA, September 22-25, 2004. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2006.
Russell-Smith, Lilla. Uygur Patronage in Dunhuang: Regional Art Centres on the Northern Silk Road in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
Watson, Burton. The Vimalakirti Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Pub, 2008.
Wilensky, Julie. “The Magical Kunlun and “Devil Slaves”: Chinese Perceptions of Dark-Skinned People and Africa Before 1500.” Sino-Platonic Papers 122 (July, 2002): 1-56. http://www.sino-platonic.org/complet...ese_africa.pdf (accessed April 8, 2012).
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