Portrait of an Rölpai Dorje (1717–1786), Lama of the Seal

Accession Number

Portrait of an Rölpai Dorje (1717–1786), Lama of the Seal


Artist Nationality
Tibetan (culture or style)

Object Creation Date

Medium & Support
ink, mineral pigments, and gold on paper

18 5/8 x 13 5/16 in. (47.3 x 33.8 cm);28 13/16 x 20 13/16 in. (73.03 x 52.71 cm)

Credit Line
Gift of Marybelle B. Hanna

Subject matter
A portrait of an Rölpai Dorje ("the Playful Vajra," 1717–1786), spiritual adviser to Emperor Kangxi of Qing dynasty China and the leading authority on Tibetan Buddhism in China for much of the 18th century.
A Mongolian, Dragpa Sonam—his personal name— was identified at age 3 as the reincarnation of the first Changkya Huthugtu, who had served at the Qing court as preceptor to the Yongzheng emperor. At age 7, Dragpa Sonam was captured and taken to Beijing, where he was educated at the Songzhu Temple, a famous center of Tibetan Buddhist studies. He became fluent in Mongolian, Manchurian, and Chinese as well as in the dual worlds of the Qing court and the Mongol-Tibetan monastery.
Rölpai Dorje was eventually appointed to the highest rank for a Tibetan monk in China, and given charge of all the Buddhist monasteries. He oversaw the refurbishing of a palace building at the Yonghegong, a Tibetan temple, and designed and furnished the Yuhuage as a private imperial chapel for Tibetan Buddhist practice. He frequently served as an advisor on diplomatic issues concerning China's relationship with Tibet, and developed close relationships with both the Dalai and Panchen Lamas.
In the artistic field, he was a major patron of both architecture and paintings and sculptures in the Tibetan style. An authority on iconography, he personally compiled a collection of images of the major deities and historical figures in Tibetan Buddhism, which became models for later generations.
Rölpai Dorje is shown at the center of this composition, swathed in a magnificent red brocade surplice. He wears the yellow hat of the Gelugpa School, and holds the vajra (diamond scepter) and the ghanta (bell), the two key symbols of tantric Buddhism, in his hands. His face is depicted in a naturalistic way, in constrast to the idealization so common in Tibetan portraits of great teachers. His throne is draped in a red cloth with gold brocade medallions, and the arm chairs end in elaborately carved dragon heads. At the lama's feet is a table set with the traditional implements of Tibetan Buddhist ritual. Immediately behind him, on his right a lotus blossom supports a sword, and on his left, the book of knowledge: these are the attributes of Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, and also associate Rôlpai Dorje with Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa order.
Rölpai Dorje is surrounded by other figures who illustrate his place in a spiritual lineage: Above, from the viewer's left to right, are figures of Chakrasamvara in his yab-yum aspect; Tsongkhapha; and the Bodhisattva Manjusri. Rölpai Dorje initiated the Qianlong emperor into the Chakrasamvara tantra, and the other two figures are mentioned above. In the lower register, again from the viewer's left to right, appear Yamantaka, conquerer of death, riding a bull; Mahakala, trampling figures who represent obstacles to the faith; and Palden Lhamo, a goddess riding a donkey, protector of the dharma. Rölpai Dorje is known to have taken Mahakala and Palden Lhamo as his personal protector deities.
Berger, Patricia. Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist art and political authority in Qing China. University of Hawaii Press, 2003.
Berger, Patricia. "Lineages of Form: Buddhist portraiture in the Manchu Court." The Tibet Journal, XXVIII, no 1/2, 2003: 109–146.
Henss, Michael. "Rölpai Dorje—Teacher of the Empire," excerpt in Chinese Imperial Patronage: Treasures from Temples and Palaces, Vol.II, publ. by Christopher Bruckner, Asian Art Gallery, London (n.d.):97–109.
Wang, Xiangyun. Tibetan Buddhism at the Court of the Qing: the life and work of Lcang Skya Rol Pa'i Rdo Rje (1717-1786), Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1995.
Palace Museum, Beijing, ed., Cultural Relics of Tibetan Buddhism collected in the Qing Pallac e, 1992

Physical Description
A painting in ink, mineral pigments, and gold on paper. The painting would have originally been framed in concentric strips of silk, but the silk has been trimmed and the painting placed in a Western-style frame.

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