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Karmapa Mikyo Dorje, 1550-54

Tibet, 1550-1554
Pigment and gold on cotton with silk border
comp: 33-1/4 x 23-1/2 in. (84.5 x 59.7 cm); mount: 52 x 36 in. (132.1 x 91.4 cm)
Norton Simon Museum, Gift of Arnold H. Lieberman
© Norton Simon Museum

Not on view

An inscription on the back of the painting identifies the main figure as Mikyo Dorje, the eighth pontiff of the Karmapa suborder of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The painting was likely commissioned while Mikyo Dorje was still alive, as indicated by the depiction of his hands and feet in the upper and lower corners of the painting, a practice that is exclusive to Tibetan art.

Seated on a multicolored lotus throne, the pontiff is surrounded by myriad auspicious symbols. At the top of the painting are three figures: Padmasambhava, the Buddha Amitayus and Mikyo Dorje. Above the pontiff’s green halo are eight seated figures, likely to be emanations of himself, symbolizing his influence in all directions. He is further surrounded by eight female dancing figures called dakinis, which represent enlightened energy. Below the lotus throne are clusters of offerings, including gems, ivory tusks, mirrors, shells and flowers. These offerings are intended for the pontiff, in order to seek his blessing. In between the pontiff’s footprints is a horse-mounted guardian figure in yab-yum, or sexual union, with a female consort. Together, all of these symbols indicate Mikyo Dorje’s enlightened knowledge.

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