The arhat is seated cross-legged on a throne in a rockwork grotto with an attendant monk approaching on one side bearing an offering in a cloth-wrapped bundle and another figure slipping out of view below. The main figure is seated in meditation with his hands clasped in a dhyāna “meditation” mudra. The face is delicately drawn and detailed with fine lines to produce an elegant, refined and most ethereal countenance. The arhat wears an orange-colored robe with cloud motifs sketched in gold, the wide blue borders beneath green, red and blue sashes decorated with gilt floral and diaper patterns. The throne is embellished with four gold-colored cloud motif finials on the armrests and faint gilt scrolls on the red frame. The rockwork is composed of layers of green, blue and brown overlapping rock with gilt saw-tooth edges that create a crystalline appearance. An exotic gnarled mimosa tree with red and blue blossoms is to the left with a faint image of a long-tailed white bird perched on a branch. Wide-leafed, shrub-like bamboo sprouts from behind the tree. The attending monk wears a long red, blue and green robe decorated with gold flowers and cross-hatched borders. The garb of the figure below suggests he is a member of the laity.
Portraits of the sixteen original followers of Sakyamuni Buddha were produced as sets for use in temples flanking an image of Sakyamuni himself and usually mounted above the altar of the temple. The present painting was likely part of such a set, these archetypal monks charged with guardianship of the sacred utterances of the Buddha. The image would have been placed to the right of the central icon, along with the seven others also facing in the same direction, toward the Buddha, opposite their eight cohorts on the Buddha’s left. The arhat in these series are often identified either by inscription or clear iconographic inclusions. The arhat here, seated in meditative posture in a rocky grotto, might represent Ajita, (Mapampa in Tibetan), known to occupy a mountain cave, the site of his meditative practices, and one who inspired meditation in others. The acolyte approaches with a fabric-wrapped bundle, perhaps with an offering of fruit or even a set of implements for preparing and serving tea.
Tibetan Buddhism had an influence on the spiritual life of the early-15th century Yongle emperor, reflecting the emperor’s partiality to the Mongols under whom Tibetan Buddhism entered China. With the close relationship between the Tibetan Buddhist clergy and the Ming emperor, there was a cross-over of stylistic influence that resulted in a category of painting produced in China under strong influence of Tibetan artistic norms and described in general as Sino-Tibetan. The lovely as well as highly instructive Rubin Museum of Art exhibition, Paradise and Plumage, Chinese Connections in Tibetan Arhat Painting, presented images to illustrate the significant parallels between Chinese (Sino-Tibetan) and Tibetan Buddhist art (figs. 1-4).
The treatment of the tree here with its calligraphic, abstract character and hence unnaturalistic flavor, along with the tamping down of the Chinese inspired blue-green style of the rocks, which here have been transformed into surfaces of muted greens and shades of brown, suggest a Tibetan origin for the painting. This attribution is supported by the scalloped outline of the throne, not unusual in Tibetan images, along with the asymmetrical design of the finials on the chair, quite uncharacteristic of an image produced by a Chinese artist.
Fig. 1: Arhat Ajiat, Chinese (Sino-Tibetan), Ming dynasty, Yongle period, early 15th century, Robert Rosenkranz collection, after Rob Linrothe, Paradise and Plumage: Chinese Connections in Tibetan Arhat Painting, Rubin Museum of Art, New York and Chicago, 2004, fig. 4.
Fig. 2: Arhat Chudapantaka, Tibetan, late 15th century, Rubin collections, after Rob Linrothe, Paradise and Plumage: Chinese Connections in Tibetan Arhat Painting, Rubin Museum of Art, New York and Chicago, 2004, fig. 5.
Fig. 3: Arhat Kalika, Chinese (Sino-Tibetan), Ming dynasty, Yongle period, early 15th century, after Rob Linrothe, Paradise and Plumage: Chinese Connections in Tibetan Arhat Painting, Rubin Museum of Art, New York and Chicago, 2004, fig. 6.
Fig. 4: Arhat Kalika, Tibetan, c. 15th century, Rubin collections, after Rob Linrothe, Paradise and Plumage: Chinese Connections in Tibetan Arhat Painting, Rubin Museum of Art, New York and Chicago, 2004, fig. 7.