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Coffered Ceiling from Zhihuasi (Temple of Transforming Wisdom)

c. 1444
Artist/maker unknown, Chinese

The Zhihua monastery is one of the great Buddhist temple compounds in the Chinese capital of Beijing. Conceived on a grand scale, the compound was built in the early 1400s by the eunuch Wang Zhen. This ceiling comes from the second of five main halls on the monastery's central axis—the Hall of Great Wisdom.


To give visitors a sense of the original context, the Museum installed the ceiling with architectural elements reconstructed from measured drawings made at the original site. In the center is a writhing imperial dragon surrounded by clouds, bracketing, and eight canted panels, each bearing a smaller dragon among clouds. Lotuses, apsaras (Buddhist flying musicians), and other Buddhist religious symbols are carved in the surrounding panels. The Chinese name for this central part of the ceiling is tianjing, or "well of heaven." While most of the original red lacquer is well preserved, much of the rich overlay of gold leaf has been lost.


A series of model temples supported by cloud-decorated brackets encompass the central element; within these miniature structures are delicately carved sculptures of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The remainder of the ceiling consists of square panels painted with stylized lotus flowers that show the influence of Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism). Each bears a character from a North Indian script (called Lantsha by the Tibetans) that symbolically recreates the universe. The model temples and panels may have been added during repairs made in the Kangxi period (1662–1722).

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Object Details

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