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: The Qianlong Emperor as Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom

The Qianlong Emperor as Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom

Thangka (unmounted)
Artist: Imperial workshop, Emperor's face painted by Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining) (1688-1766)
Historical period(s)
Qing dynasty, Qianlong reign, mid-18th century
Ink, color, and gold on silk
H x W (image): 113.6 x 64.3 cm (44 3/4 x 25 5/16 in)
Credit Line
Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment and funds provided by an anonymous donor
Freer Gallery of Art
Accession Number
This unusual portrait reflects upon the political strategy of the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736–96) as well as his personal religious beliefs. Moreover, it is testimony to the multicultural nature of his court and empire. The emperor has had himself portrayed in the center of a thangka, a traditional Tibetan-style religious painting, but he called upon the Italian artist Giuseppe Castiglione, who was a Jesuit missionary serving at the Chinese court, to paint his face. By having himself depicted as the enlightened being Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, the Qianlong emperor positioned himself squarely in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy. The landscape surrounding him is filled with auspicious clouds and a representation of the five-peaked, Wutaishan sacred mountain in China.

The inscription on the painting proclaims Manjusri to be the ruler of the Buddhist faith. By assuming Manjusri's identity, the Qianlong emperor indirectly laid claim to that role for himself. This was politically significant because relations between the Qianlong court and the Mongol and Tibetan residents of the empire were couched in Buddhist, rather than Confucian, cultural rhetoric. The Qianlong emperor ordered thangkas, with himself as the central deity, displayed in the Tibetan Buddhist chapels that he erected in Peking (modern-day Beijing). One thangka that he sent to the Seventh Dalai Lama is currently displayed in the Potala, the Dalai Lama's residence in Lhasa, Tibet.

Private collection, Europe [1]

To 2000
Anthony Carter, London, to 2000

From 2000
Freer Gallery of Art, purchased from Anthony Carter, through Christopher B. Bruckner (Asian Art Gallery), London, in 2000 [2]


[1] A letter (see copy in the object file) written by the London solicitors Rochman Landau states that they have seen a written statement that this object was in a previous owner's private European family collection for a period in excess of thirty years (according to Curatorial Note 4 in the object record).

[2] According to Curatorial Note 4 in the object record.

Former owner
Anthony Carter
On View Location
Currently not on view
Buddhism, China, dharmachakra, dragon, emperor, lotus, Manjushri, monk, nirvana, portrait, Qianlong reign (1736 - 1796), Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911), tomb, WWII-era provenance
Collection(s) Area
Chinese Art
Web Resource(s)
Google Cultural Institute

Rights Statement
Copyright with museum

The Freer|Sackler is currently closed for renovations, updates, and gallery reinstallation. The popular exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan is still on view in the International Gallery. (Enter through the Ripley Center.) Please join us for our weekend-long reopening celebration on October 14 and 15, 2017.