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6. Imperial Portrait of Ropai Dorje (1717-1786)
China, Qianlong
48.4 x 33 cm (19 x 13 in)
Imperial Portrait of Ropai Dorje (1717-1786)

This fine painting of Rolpai Dorje (rol pa'i rdo rje) (1717-1786) is an exceedingly rare example of the blending of Italian and Chinese painting styles at the Imperial court of the Qianlong emperor. The subsidiary figures, background, and body of Rolpai Dorje are all executed in a Himalayan style common to the Yonghe Temple in Beijing. Yet the portrait face of Rolpai Dorje is executed in the ITALIAN BAROQUE style exemplified by the Jesuit priest, Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) living in the Qianlong court. It is unlikely that the portrait face was executed by Castiglione himself but by one of his students (Castiglione died in 1766 while Rolpai Dorje's demise is not until 1786). Castiglione and his students were in high demand to paint portraits of important court figures and very few such paintings are still in existence with the vast majority being held in the Imperial Palace itself or in museum collections.

This imperial thangka is one of a small group of works that consistently portray the idiosyncratic physiognomy of Rolpai Dorje. All the paintings in the group show the fine mustache and sparse goatee. Also discernible in this and other portraits is a faint strabismus and drooping lower lid of the left eye, and the slight swelling of his right cheek for which he was known to suffer, compare, for example, a remarkably similar portrait in the Staatliches Museum fuer Völkerkunde in Munich, published in Andreas Lommel, Kunst des Buddhismus, München, 1974, p. 161, pl. 87. Other portraits painted in this distinctive style include two examples in the Yonghegong, Beijing (HAR # 100111), another example in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (HAR #35116), EA1983.26, one in The American Museum of Natural History (HAR # 94493), 70.3/1590, and another example formerly with the Asian Art Gallery, London, mounted in its original lacquered wood frame and similarly painted with a multi-coloured rainbow border, illustrated in Asian Art Gallery, Chinese Imperial Patronage: Treasures from Temples and Palaces, Vol. II, London, 2005, p. 104.

Rolpai Dorje was born in Amdo and educated at the court of the Yongzheng emperor where he formed a strong relationship with his fellow student, the future Qianlong emperor. Promoted to state preceptor by the new emperor he became one of the most important and influential figures at the Qianlong court, in both religious and diplomatic affairs. He was recognized as the incarnate Changkya Hutuktu, the Mongolian lineage of Buddhist masters. He presided over complex state Buddhist rituals, revitalized ancient Buddhist traditions and promoted revised teaching systems and Buddhist iconographic programs. He compiled the renowned illustrated pantheon of Three Hundred and Sixty Icons, and was responsible for the translation of important Buddhist texts into Mongolian. Under the auspices of the emperor, Rolpai Dorje was responsible for the prodigious production of almost all Imperial Buddhist works of art seen in the eighteenth century, and is regarded as a visionary character that greatly contributed to the legacy of the Qianlong reign.

Staring straight ahead, with the eyes open, wizened and wrinkled with age, he has a moustache and goatee. Atop the head is the traditional yellow pandita hat of the Gelugpa tradition. In the right and left hands are a vajra scepter and bell. Also in the hands are the stems of two lotus blossoms supporting on the proper right side an upright sword of wisdom. On the left side is a Prajnaparamita book. Wearing the orange and yellow patchwork robes of a fully ordained monk, his lower body is wrapped in a yellow meditation cloak.

The throne seat is in a Chinese style with dragon arm rests at the sides. The table in front holds on the left side a black beginning bowl containing three peaches, golden water flask, damaru drum and a rhino horn. On the right side are an initiation vase, skull cup and conch shell.

At the top center are the Buddhas of the Three Times, Shakyamuni in the middle, Kashyapa, on the left and Maitreya on the right. Below that on the left is Green Tara. On the right is White Tara.

At the bottom center is the meditational deity Vajrabhairava. Below on the left is Shadbhuja Mahakala. Below on the right is Yama Dharmaraja. At the far left is Shri Devi Magzor Gyalmo. On the far right is Vaishravana Riding a Lion.

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