04. Jataka Tales

Circa 18th Century
Distemper on cloth
36 3/8 by 25 3/8 in. (92.4 by 64.5 cm.)

David R. Nalin Collection

Kerin, M., Artful Beneficence: Highlights from the David R. Nalin Himalayan Art Collection, exhibition catalogue, Rubin Museum of Art, New York, 2009, cat. no. 60
Jeff Watt, Himalayan Art Resources, item no. 58961

At the center of this colorful and densely composed thangka is the iconic image of Buddha Sakyamuni sitting with his hands in the bhumisparsa mudra (the earth-touching gesture). He sits on a multi-hued lotus pedestal atop a low, golden plinth, surrounded by scenes from the Jataka stories (Skyes rabs), narratives of his previous lives and the moral lessons he learned in each incarnation. Blues, greens, oranges, and reds dominate the palette. This palette, together with certain stylistic elements—the jagged rock formation, the proportions of the broad-shouldered Buddha, his dome-shaped head, round, full cheeks, and almond-shaped eyes turning up slightly at the outer edges—associate the work with Sino-Tibetan aesthetics of Central Tibet in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This painting’s composition, however, with its five distinct horizontal sections, each with its own skyline and rolling hills, represents a departure from the typical background found in Central Tibetan paintings of the period. The customary backgrounds of such paintings are usually thickly-populated with people and heavily decorated, and rarely is a skyline visible except in the uppermost part of the canvas. Furthermore, the strong horizontal organization of this thangka is quite rare in Tibetan painting, also casting doubt on a Central Tibetan place of production. It is possible that this painting is the result of a hybrid style. Painters from one region, for example, may have been commissioned to work in another. This would certainly allow for the unusual combination of stylistic elements. (Kerin, op. cit., p. 120.)

The vignettes are organized into five horizontal registers separated by thin red lines in which numbered Tibetan verses are inscribed in gold. Thus, each vignette is further differentiated by a number and inscription. The numbering system starts at thirty-one in the upper left and continues down the left side of the thangka and up the right. The last numbered vignette is forty, which appears in the upper right and depicts a scene based on the story of the Buddha as a monk who was burned alive.

This thangka’s numbering system reveals that the painting is not derived from the more traditional Indian text, Jatakamala, which features a total of thirty-four stories. Instead the textual source was probably the one hundred Jataka stories written by the third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (Kar ma pa rang byung rdo rje, 1284-1339), making this painting very likely part of a much larger cycle of paintings (Watt notes, op. cit., specifically that: “This individual work is the 2nd left painting (L2) from a larger eleven-painting set containing the thirty-four original stories of the Jatakamala along with a further sixty-seven stories supplemented by the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, 1284-1339.”)

A painting in the Zimmerman Collection undoubtedly belongs to this set (see Pal, P., Art of the Himalayas, Treasures from Nepal and Tibet, New York, 1991, no. 101). The two paintings have identical compositions and share consistent stylistic elements such as the figural types, architectural details, textile patterns, clothing designs, landscape treatments, palette, and line articulation. In addition, the Zimmerman painting uses the same numbering system, although its vignettes are numbered from seventy to eighty.