The Qianlong Emperor as Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom
Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining)
Ink, color, and gold on silk
Purchase--Anonymous donor and Museum funds F2000.4
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This unusual portrait reflects upon the political strategy of the Qianlong emperor (reigned 173696) 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.
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