Transcontinental Connections in Art

Genghis Khan and the Mongols are invariably associated with terrible tales of conquest, destruction, and bloodshed. Yet, the legacy of Genghis Khan, his sons, and grandsons is also one of cultural development, artistic achievement, a courtly way of life, and an entire continent united under the so-called Pax Mongolica. The Mongols were remarkably quick in transforming themselves from a purely nomadic tribal people into rulers of cities and states and in learning how to administer their vast empire. The political unification of Asia under the Mongols resulted in active trade and the transfer and resettlement of artists and craftsmen along the main routes. New influences were thus integrated with established local artistic traditions.

 

Yuan

Two major currents flowed into Yuan court sponsorship of the arts: one derived largely from the Yuan encounter with Tibetan Buddhist art; and a second drew from the artistic conventions of the Tang and Song dynasties.[1]

Tibetan art

In the second half of the thirteenth century, Tibetan Buddhism was adopted as the official religion of the Yuan state. As a consequence, Tibetan Buddhist art became the most important form of official and public art of the Yuan dynasty, flourishing not only in Tibet but also in China and Mongolia.

Why would this suddenly happen? At that time, Kublai Khan, invited Phagpa to his palace and asked him many questions that others could not answer to his satisfaction. Chogyal Phagpa responded with such logic and reasoning that the Emperor was pleased.[2] Phagpa therefore was chosen by Kublai as the religious leader not only of Tibet but also of the Yuan empire, under which Tibet was organized as a special region.

Kublai Khan formed an alliance with Phagpa.[3] Their alliance was made through a kind of “priest-patron” relationship is known as “yon mchod” in Tibetan.[4] “Yon” indicates material donation by the patron, “mchod” refers to spiritual refuge conferred by the priest. The relationship [5]was an alliance between secular and spiritual powers, a coalition of mutual support and benefit. Therefore, when a ruler chose a lama as his spiritual teacher, he needed to present large donations of gold, silver, and other treasures and satisfy religious, political, and other requests of the lama. The lama in return offered his advice, supernatural aassistance, and spiritual salvation. Therefore, it could be easily understood why this alliance between Khubilai Khan and Phaga served the aspiration of them at the same time: Phagpa provided Khubilai with a Buddhist worldview which legitimized and sanctified his rule; and Khubilai endowed Phagpa with tremendous wealth and power by which to spread the Buddhist faith.[6]

As a result of this, Phagpa was instrumental in the creation of a Sino-Himalayan school of art at the Yuan court. He was asked to perform Kublai’s enthronement ceremony a few months after he was appointed to be the Guoshi (National Precptor). Phagpa needed artists to create the imagery necessary for the many Tibetan Buddhist rituals that were to become essential activities at the Yuan court. And one of the artists he gathered in the Sakya monastery in Central Tibet was a supremely talented seventeen-year-old Nepalese artist known as Anige.[7] A Tibetan source reveals that Anige once made an image of Mahakala for a Buddhist ritual held to accelerate the Mongol victory over the Southern Song. In 1273, Khubilai was ready to launch a final attack on the Southern Song. In order to enlist supernatural aid of the deities of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon for Bayan’s campaign, which was to begin in the sixth month of 1274, Phagpa sent Anige to Juzhou to build a temple. Anige made the image of Mahakala and its entourage.[8] The statues, aligned to face the enemy and fortified by prayers, appeared to enable Mongol victory. The final victory was the capture of the Song imperial art collection at Hangzhou, whose treasures from the Tang and Song periods became a concurrent source of Yuan artistic inspiration. Anige was appointed to oversee the thousands of art works of every type and description, from jewelry and brocades to painting and architecture, including Daoist and Confucian objects but primarily works of Tibetan Buddhist inspiration. From this emerged the distinctive features of Sino-Himalayan art of the Yuan.[9]

In conclusion, Yuan’s encounter with Tibetan art was mainly due to the religious choice made by Kublai. The financial support allowed the religion and its art to thrive and to flow from Tibet to China, and thus it could interact with the local ones and form a unique kind of art phenomenon in this period.

Traditional Chinese art

The influence of artistic conventions of previous Chinese dynasties reflect on two aspects:

First, the transmission of motifs and symbols. A number of motifs that were part of the existing artistic repertoire were adopted as imperial symbols of power and dominance—the dragon and the phoenix, for example, two mythical beasts that integrated the ideas of cosmic force, earthly strength, superior wisdom, and eternal life. The Mongol versions of the creatures are the highly decorative sinuous dragon with legs, horns, and beard and the large bird with a spectacular feathered tail floating in the air.[10] At the same time, for the semi-nomadic Mongols, portable textiles and clothing were the best means of demonstrating their acquired wealth and power. Therefore, the Chinese motifs were quickly transmitted to many places.[11]

The second factor is the Chinese artists that serve Yuan. Many Chinese painters at that time were employed by Kubilai. One of the greatest painters of the Yuan Dynasty, Zhao Mengfu, was an example of this. He received a court position from Kublai Khan, and much support and encouragement from the Mongols. Kublai was also a patron to many other Chinese painters, as well as artisans working in ceramics and fine textiles. In fact, the status of artisans in China was generally improved during the Mongols’ reign.[12]

However, in “The Mongol Century: Visual Cultures of Yuan China”, the author Shane McCausland mentioned that though Kubilai Khan was not opposed to borrowing from “Han” Chinese culture, or recruiting promising former Song subjects into his government, many institutions and practices that characterized prior Chinese dynasties were abolished in the founding of the Yuan, most notably the imperial examination system, which prior to the Yuan had been the main avenue for male subjects to enter the imperial bureaucracy. And this suggests a the impact that non-Han cultures had upon China, which is called “Huhua”, opposing to the usual concept of “Hanhua” (Sinicization of the Mongols) that people are used to. And this influence even last to the later Ming and Ch’ing dynasties. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei, “Many of the techniques used in arts and crafts during the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties were established in the previous Yuan dynasty under the Mongols. For example, designs painted in underglaze blue and underglaze red rose in the Yuan dynasty and flourished in the Hung-wu, Yung-lo, and Hsuan-te reigns of the following Ming dynasty.

Therefore it can be concluded that in China, the Mongol rulers were aware of their identity of being the conqueror and the foreign ruler. Therefore, they need to be “similar” enough to make the subjects to accept their rule, but at the same time to be careful not become the same as their subjects. This required the Mongol rulers to find the perfect balance in between. The dynamic of different “current of art” is essentially a reflection of the Mongols attitude toward this problem. At the same time, just like the other impact this foreign-ruled dynasty had on the later Chinese history, the incorporation of art brought by the Mongols caused an irreversible impact of local culture.

 

Ilkhanate

Hülegü subdued Iran in 1256. Hülegü’s dynasty—the Ilkhanids, or Lesser Khans—ruled this area, called Greater Iran, until about 1353.[13] Although Mongol conquests initially brought devastation and affected the balance of artistic production, in a short period of time, the control of most of Asia by the Mongols—the so-called Pax Mongolica—created an environment of tremendous cultural exchange. Following the conversion to Islam of Il-Khan Mahmud Ghazan in 1295 and the establishment of his active cultural policy in support of his new religion, Islamic art flourished once again.[14] Being the new rulers, the Mongols were greatly impressed by the long-established traditions of Iran, and they quickly assimilated the local culture. The Mongol influence on Iranian and Islamic culture gave birth to an extraordinary period in Islamic art that combined well-established traditions with the new visual language transmitted from eastern Asia. The arts of the book, including illuminated and illustrated manuscripts of religious and secular texts, became a major focus of artistic production. Among them, the Persian national epic – Shanama (Book of Kings) is a conspicuous one. Therefore, in the following part, it will be used as an example of demonstrating how the Mongol Empire led the culture connections intercontinentally.

 

The very public Mongol conversion to Islam causes a sudden surge in the production of manuscripts. Therefore, papermaking factories, calligraphers and workers in their ancillary trades – those who prepared the paper, pens, and ink, bookbinders and leatherworkers, illuminators and painters – also benefited from the new direction taken by royal and vizierial patronage.[15] Hence the extremely rapid development of book painting in this period can actually be seen as an unexpected by-product of the religious development.

But why it was the art of book painting that thrive, but not the other forms of art? If we examine the major books in this period – Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), Tafsir (commentaries on the Koran), Ata Malik Juvaini’s “Tarikh-ijahan-gusha” (History of the World Conqueror), Al-Tabari’s Ta’rikh al-rusul wa al-muluk (Chronicle of Prophets and Kings), Rashid al-Din’s Jami’ al-tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles), and Shahnama (Book of Kings) – we would found that all these books had a closely focused aim: to assert and promote either religion or heritage. The alien rulers of Iran were trying to use book painting as a mean to express a new and public commitment to the religion and cultural heritage of the very lands.

Among the many books of that period, Shahnama, the Book of Kings, certainly played a dominant role. It is remarkable in many aspects: The majestic physical scale of the work, with trimmed pages measruing 16 by 115/8 inches and originally, when the margins were intact, very much more, enabled its illustrators to think big; It pioneers a new complexity in storytelling techniques, with plot and subplot artfully juxtaposed or interwoven, or the main event richly embroidered with complementary detail; Moreover, the book contains a confident appropriation of ideas from other cultures. [16]

Tabriz at that time was thronged with European missionaries, Chinese officials, and merchants and diplomats from all over the world, demonstrating a cosmopolitanism phenomenon.[17] Therefore it was unsurprising that Christian images found in Shahnama. Gospel archetypes such as the Adoration of the Magi, Entry into Jesrusalem, Flagellation, Carrying of the Cross, Crucifixion, Deposition, Lamentation, and Entombment are freely adopted and adapted. Plaited hair, depiction of drapery, and other contemporary European fashions and conventions appeared in the paintings as well. [16]

 

This willingness to echo contemporary Italian and French art is balanced by equal readiness to copy and refashion elements of Chinese art. For example, in “Mihran Sitad Selecting a Chinese Princess”, the painting contain details taken from Buddihst images. (figure on the left) – Muras, the trailing leg, the recumbent pose, and the triratna (Three Jewels), dragons, the scared funges, architecture, lacquer thrones, screens, and all kinds of far eastern textiles, and all kinds of Far Eastern textiles, including a Chinese imperial robe for the dying Rustam.[16] Chinese landscape elements are also used in various situations.

 

Another example was brought by Professor Michal Biran’s talk on the Mongol’s Imperial Space on Dec 3, 2020. She talked about how the Mongols at that time invested in patronizing the productions of beautifully illustrated manuscript of heroes and kings, and portraying its heroes and kings in Mongol garbs. For example, in “Alexander the Great’s Iron Riders Attacking India” (figure on the right) Alexander the great, a Persian king, was dressed in Mongol clothes and riding in a very Chinese-like landscape in the painting. Paintings like this reflect a kind of global connotations, and demonstrate how the Mongols assimilated the various art styles.[18]

 

Ilkhanate book painting gave a peak into how culture flowed under the Mongol rule, and how artists at that time responded vigorously and imaginatively to the new challenges posed by unfamiliar subject matter and hitherto alien ways of seeing. Those large and lavishly illustrated books were the fruit of the cross-continental connections.

 

Conclusion

In both cases of Yuan and Ilkhanate, the connection between religion and art is easily identifiable. The process of art assimilation or integration starts after the conversion of court religion: In Yuan, the adoption of Tibetan Buddhism lead to the later Sino-Himalayan school of art; In Ilkhanate, Ghazan’s conversion to Islam cause the emphasis in Iranian and Islamic culture. The support of the ruler was made both in financial terms and ideology, thereby the local culture were enabled to develop and interact with new flows of art. At the same time, the political unification achieved by the Mongols allowed active trade, therefore transfer and resettlement of artists and craftsmen along the main routes became frequent, and new influences were thus integrated with established local artistic traditions. All of these factors combined lead to the unprecedented transcontinental connections and interaction in the area of art.

[1] “Dadu in Khitai (Great Yuan).” In Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art, 176-98. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2019.

[2] “Drogon Chogyal Phagpa.” His Holiness the Sakya Trichen (the 41st Sakya Trizin), 29 Nov. 2017, hhsakyatrizin.net/drogon-chogyal-phagpa/.

[3] Giuseppi Tucci, *Tibetan Painted Scrolls* (Rome, 1949), p. 10; Janos Szerb, “Glosses on the Oeuvre of Bla-Ma ’Phags-Pa: III. The ‘Patron-Patronized’ Relationship” in Aziz and Kapstein, eds. *Soundings in Tibetan Civilization* (New Delhi, 1985), pp. 165-173.

[4] shal pa Kun dga’ rdo rje 紅冊(1309-I364), Deb ther dmar po (completed I346-I363; Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1981), 48

[5] Jing, Anning. “Financial and Material Aspects of Tibetan Art under the Yuan Dynasty.” Artibus Asiae, vol. 64, no. 2, 2004, pp. 213–241. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3250185. Accessed 23 Dec. 2020.

[6] “Tibetans in Yuan China” in J.D. Langlois, Jr., ed. *China Under Mongol Rule* (Princeton, 1981), p. 307

[7] Anning Jing, “The Portraits of Khubilai Khan and Chabi by Anige (1245-1306), A Nepali Artist at the Yuan Court” *Artibus Asiae* liv, 1-2 (1994), pp. 42

[8] Yuanshi, juan 8

[9] Dadu in Khitai (Great Yuan).” In Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art, 176-98. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2019.

[10] Metmuseum.org, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/enag/hd_enag.htm.

[11] “Islamic Art: Two Belt Fittings.” Khalili Collections, www.khalilicollections.org/collections/islamic-art/khalili-collection-islamic-art-two-belt-fittings-jly1012/.

[12] Asia for Educators, Columbia University. “Mongols in World History: Asia for Educators.” Mongols in World History | Asia for Educators, afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols/history/history4.htm.

[13] Metmuseum.org, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/khan1/hd_khan1.htm).

[14] Metmuseum.org, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/khan1/hd_khan1.htm.

[15] Hillenbrand, Robert. “6 The Arts of the Book in Ilkhanid Iran.” The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353, by Linda Komaroff and Stefano Carboni, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.

[16] Hillenbrand, Robert. “6 The Arts of the Book in Ilkhanid Iran.” The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353, by Linda Komaroff and Stefano Carboni, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.

[17] Mirzaei, Abdollah. (2019). Effect of Globalization on Identity Components of Contemporary Rugs of Tabriz. Bagh-E Nazar. 10.22034/bagh.2019.87460.

[18] Biran, Michal. “The Mongols’ Imperial Space: From Universalism to Glocalization: CGA.” YouTube, 3 Dec. 2020, youtu.be/xHr_B5ua-fA.

 

 

Reference

“Addendum to the Sakya Genealogy Marvelous Storehouse” 薩迦世系史—續編 Ngag dbang kun dga’ bsod nams, Sa skya’i gdung rabs ngo mtshar bang mdzod (I629; Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, I986), 153.

Anning Jing, “The Portraits of Khubilai Khan and Chabi by Anige (1245-1306), A Nepali Artist at the Yuan Court”

*Artibus Asiae* liv, 1-2 (1994),

Asia for Educators, Columbia University. “Mongols in World History: Asia for Educators.” Mongols in World History | Asia for Educators, afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols/history/history4.htm.

Biran, Michal. “The Mongols’ Imperial Space: From Universalism to Glocalization: CGA.” YouTube, 3 Dec. 2020, youtu.be/xHr_B5ua-fA.

“Drogon Chogyal Phagpa.” His Holiness the Sakya Trichen (the 41st Sakya Trizin), 29 Nov. 2017, hhsakyatrizin.net/drogon-chogyal-phagpa/.

Giuseppe Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls (Rome: La Libreria dello Stato, 1949; reprint, Bangkok: SDI Publications, 1999) I:3-7; Luciano Petech, “Tibetan Relations with Sung China and with the Mongols,” in China among Equals, ed. Morris Rossabi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), I73-203.

Hillenbrand, Robert. “6 The Arts of the Book in Ilkhanid Iran.” The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353, by Linda Komaroff and Stefano Carboni, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.

“Islamic Art: Two Belt Fittings.” Khalili Collections, www.khalilicollections.org/collections/islamic-art/khalili-collection-islamic-art-two-belt-fittings-jly1012/.

Metmuseum.org, www.metmuseum.org/.

shal pa Kun dga rdo rje 紅冊(1309-I364), Deb ther dmar po

(completed I346-I363; Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 1981), 48

Yuanshi

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