- Museum number
Object: Vaisravana, Guardian King of the North
Painting of lokapala Vaisravana, Guardian King of the North, riding across the waters on horseback surrounded by his entourage, including his five sons in armour, yaksas and a high official with his wife (these two may be the donor figures). The lower part of the painting shows three infant souls swimming in the water, a sea-monster and a woman who is probably Śrī Devi. The building on the top left may represent one of the cities in the Vaisravana's northern domain. Inscribed. Ink and colour on silk.
- Production date
- 926-975 (circa)
Height: 61.80 centimetres
Width: 57.40 centimetres
- Curator's comments
From Whitfield 1983:
As already demonstrated by Eiichi Matsumoto, this painting of Vaisravana is related to others found by Le Coq and Grunwedel in the shrines at Bezeklik, where the guardian king is shown riding on a horse. In other respects, the painting is similar to that shown in the following plate (Pl. 16), as the entire party is seen advancing to the right across the sea, in a landscape bordered by mountains on the horizon. The setting must represent Vaisravana’s domain to the north of Mt. Sumeru, which is said to have had three cities, a park and a lake. One of the cities may be represented by the building seen in the upper left(Fig. 15); the lake is perhaps referred to in the votive inscription opposite, which reads:
The devaraja on his way across the waters, preaching, offered with whole heart by the chief donor Xu Hanrong.
This identification, as Matsumoto has pointed out, is a useful clue to the probable appearance of a number of paintings with similar titles, ascribed to famous painters and listed in records such as the catalogue of Emperor Huizong’s collection in the Xuanhe huapu 宣和畫譜 (A.D. 1120). Possibly, as suggested by Waley according to a story in the Bishamen yigui 昆沙門儀軌, Vaisravana is in fact shown on his way to relieve the siege of Anxi 安西 in A.D. 742. Alternatively, Vaisravana is probably shown patrolling his domain, in his function as chief protector of the Buddhist Law.
The main figures are all supported on clouds. Vaisravana, in golden armour on a white horse, is surrounded by a retinue consisting of his five sons (in armour similar to that of Vaisravana himself ) and a number of yaksas. The sons carry banners, Vaisravana’s stupa and his bow. The yaksas have demonic faces and those in the foreground are seen rushing to pick up precious objects: coral, golden cash, a golden flask, a gourd-shaped bottle, flaming pearls, and so on (Fig. 14). In addition, a high official, holding a tablet, and his wife, with elaborate headdress in early tenth century style, stand behind Vaisravana’s horse. They very much have the appearance of donor figures, rather than of forming part of Vaisravana’s retinue of yaksas and warriors. Perhaps in fact the official is the principal donor mentioned in the inscription. The painting exhibits a very limited range of colours, with an orang-red dominant throughout, being used both for the bodies of the yaksa figures and as edging to the armour and to the clouds. Many of the clouds were originally blue, but this colour has not survived well.
The lower part of the painting shows three infant souls struggling to swim in the water, with a pair of ducks and lotus flowers. On the right, a sea-monster appears with gaping jaws, and a small figure of a woman who, like the swimming infants, gazes upwards at Vaisravana. As pointed out by Waley, she must be Vaisravana’s sister, Sri Devi (Pl. 15-3). On the left, the zig-zag bank of the pool contains a tiny landscape of low hills and sharp-pointed peaks, with a white-spotted brown deer in the foreground (Pl. 15-4). The deer is related in scale to the main picture, but the landscape itself is reminiscent of that in Vol. 1, Pl. 21.At the top of the painting is a narrow range of triangular peaks, set along the horizon, with red clouds above.
A mid-tenth century date seems virtually certain, in view of the elaborate tenth century headdress of the high-born lady behind Vaisravana, the limited range of colours, the symmetrically disposed flowers, and the facial details, both of Vaisravana himself and of his attendant warriors. The square format using a single width of silk is comparable to that of other votive paintings of the same date.
From Whitfield 1983:
- On display (G33/dc16b/s2)
- Exhibition history
2019 Dec-Jun 2020, London, BM, G33, rotation
1991 5 Jan-20 Feb, Japan, Yamaguchi, Prefectural Museum of Art, Treasures of the British Museum, cat. no.166
1991 9 Mar-7 May, Japan, Osaka, National Museum of Art, Treasures of the British Museum, cat. no.166
1990 20 Oct-9 Dec, Japan, Tokyo, Setagaya Art Museum, Treasures of the British Museum, cat. no.166
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- For full acquisition history, see 1919,0101,0.1.
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: Ch.xxxvii.002 (Stein no.)