Conservation and Restoration of Thangkas Collected in the Mental Cultivation Hall (Yangxin Hall)

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Image showing the Yamantaka Thangka after conservation. Image by Palace Museum.

By Xiaoji Fang, Conservation Department of The Palace Museum, Beijing, China

The conservation research project of the Mental Cultivation Hall of the Palace Museum in Beijing, China, is one of the major conservation and restoration projects undertaken by the Palace Museum in recent years. The comprehensive project includes a wide variety of cultural relics within the historical buildings and structures. The Buddhist Room in the West Chamber of the Mental Cultivation Hall houses many thangkas in their original state, which are masterpieces from the heyday of the art of thangkas in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD). This paper gives an overview of the on-going project.

OVERVIEW OF THE MENTAL CULTIVATION HALL

The construction of the Mental Cultivation Hall took place in the sixteenth year of Emperor Jiajing’s reign (1537 AD) during the Ming Dynasty. Situated in the inner court of the Forbidden City, the Hall is located on the southwest side of the Qianqing Palace, outside the Yuehua Gate.

In the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Shunzhi (1638-1661 AD) lived and died in the Hall, and subsequently during the Kangxi period (1661-1722 AD), the Mental Cultivation Hall was used as an Imperial Factory. After Emperor Kangxi’s death, Emperor Yongzheng lived in mourning in the Hall for 27 months. Since then the Mental Cultivation Hall has played an important role in history as the official living quarters for eight emperors and was the political center for 189 years during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 AD). Emperor Qianlong seceded to the throne, as the fourth son of Emperor Yongzheng, and lived in the Hall for 64 years from 1735 to 1799 during which time the Hall was renovated to meet his needs in relation to living, governing, and performing Buddhist rituals.

The Mental Cultivation Hall includes many rooms, halls and corridors with the main hall divided into three parts; the Middle Room, the East Chamber, and the West Chamber. The West Chamber is divided into front (south) and rear (north) parts. As a firm believer in Tibetan Buddhism, Emperor Qianlong built the Buddhist Room in the rear part of the West Chamber. The Buddhist Room contains cross-shaped wooden walls which divide the space, its east, south, and west walls adorned with thangkas and the north side equipped with large glass windows. Due to the importance of the Mental Cultivation Hall, the history of its interior decoration and furnishings are well documented. However, the documentation of the Buddhist Room has not been found. According to researcher Luo Wenhua, the lack of detailed descriptions in the archives may be due to the intentional downplaying of the emperor's religious beliefs. Therefore, the Buddhist Room has always been a solemn and mysterious presence.

THE RESEARCH PROJECT

The Palace Museum launched a comprehensive research-based conservation and restoration project on the Mental Cultivation Hall, including the ancient buildings and all cultural relics housed within them. The Mental Cultivation Hall includes 1,890 movable cultural relics including paintings and calligraphy, lacquer ware, thangkas, inlay, textiles, ancient clocks, wooden furniture, and more. After the initial evaluation, 33 sub-projects were approved, including the conservation and restoration of thangkas housed in the Hall.

This sub-project aims to identify the causes of damage to the thangkas, create a damage diagram, clarify the manufacturing materials and techniques of the thangkas, identify appropriate treatment methods, and establish a thangka conservation research record to guide future restoration practices. The original research period was to span four years but has been extended to the end of 2022 due to the pandemic.

BRIEF INTRODUCTION OF THE THANGKA COLLECTION

Thirty-five thangkas were originally displayed on the second floor of Buddhist Room and three were located in the niche on the first floor of Wujuan Zhai (a small room). According to the records of the Qing Court, the painting of these thangkas was done by the Buddhist lamas of the Chanting Office of the Zhongzheng Palace, and were sent to the fur or tailor studios of the Imperial Factory; these thangkas were completely drawn and mounted in the Forbidden City.

Thirty-four of the thangkas are painted and four are classified as handwork thangkas (three are applique—Duiling—thangkas and one is embroidered). As for their mounting styles, 32 are done in the textile mounting with Tibetan style and six are wood framed. The base materials of these thangkas include 29 made of silk, five of paper, three of damask, and one is embroidered. Thirty-four of the painted thangkas use mostly mineral

pigments, and a few use organic dyes with gelatin as the binder. Twenty-two of the thangkas are relatively well preserved and have a light degree of damage; 12 thangkas have detached linings and have a medium degree of damage; four thangkas have missing linings and pigment loss and are severely damaged.

CONSERVATION AND RESTORATION OF THE THANGKAS

Since the establishment of the project in 2016, we have completed the traceability and archival analysis of the thangkas, research on the drawing materials and techniques, and have identified agents of damage. Following the principles of minimal intervention, maintaining the authenticity of cultural relics, recognizability and reversibility, we have completed the conservation and restoration of six thangkas (namely Kurukulla, Yamantaka, Pelden Lhamo, Yamantaka of Applique, Guhyasamāja and Cakrasamvara ), and are currently working on the conservation and restoration of Six-armed Yamari, Four Bodhisattvas, and two pieces of Dhṛtarāṣṭra. The technical process of the conservation and restoration work includes:

-value assessment (religious, artistic, historical and scientific)
-assessment of the current state of the thangkas
-historical intervention investigation
-study of the painting materials and techniques of the thangkas
-damage investigation
-the selection of conservation and restoration materials and techniques
-the implementation of treatments
-the assessment of conservation and restoration effects
-recommendations for continued preservation and regular maintenance

The following is an example of the conservation and restoration work we are performing, highlighting the Yamantaka thangka. The Yamantaka is a thangka in the original state collection of the Palace Museum, which has been preserved in the Buddhist Room of the West Chamber of the Mental Cultivation Hall and is a fine example from the Qianlong period (1736-1796 AD).

The value of this thangka is interpreted from the perspective of religion, art, and history. The Buddhist deity painted on it is known as Yamantaka in Sanskrit, which is one of the very important deities in Tibetan Buddhism. The Yamantaka thangka has been hung in its original state on the wooden wall of the Buddhist Room in the West Chamber of the Mental Cultivation Hall, which has no special environmental control and is affected by natural factors such as light, temperature and humidity, air, etc. After more than 200 years, this thangka has suffered from various damages, mainly dust and dirt, color fading, pigment peeling, folding, broken painting surface, fabric breakage, fabric color fading, stitch cracking, creasing, insect infestation, and losses. Our research divulged that the thangka has been hanging and enshrined since the Qianlong period (1736-1796 AD) and has not been restored before. It is composed of the painting, paneled borders, a lining, lintel rods, and a lanyard. Using various analytic techniques, it was found that the painting fabric of the Yamantaka thangka is made of silk, with a large amount of mineral pigments, and the fabric material of the lining is also silk. The metal thread of the gold brocade is round twisted gold thread, and while a large amount of gold foil is used, the gold content is not high. The material of the lining is yellow silk, the lintel rods are made of bamboo, and the lanyard is made of cotton.

Through cleaning, humidity, and reinforcement tests, as well as other experiments, we selected the suitable restoration materials and treatment methods. After reinforcement simulation tests, the reinforcement materials and adhesives were chosen. The thangka was then dusted, flattened and reinforced. After treatment, the Package Studio jointly developed the preservation box for the thangka, with exhibition and transportation needs in mind. The main body of the box is made of acid-free corrugated cardboard, padded inside with soft cotton and wrapped with acid-free fabric as the outer layer. The upper and lower parts of the box are carved out to fit the thangka’s roll and lintel rods so that the surface of the thangka, including the borders and the painting, is kept on a level surface with the set edges. Six grooves were made around the box to insert Prosorb humidity control cassettes to help regulate humidity. The box allows the thangka to be isolated from the dust and pollutants in the air, to avoid light, and to benefit from micro-environmental control.

The research project on the conservation and restoration of the thangkas in the Mental Cultivation Hall will be completed by the end of 2022. In the process of conservation and restoration over the past six years, we have gained a deeper understanding of the artistic value of the thangkas, the damage, the drawing materials and techniques, and have also been able to document treatment methods, which can provide useful reference for the future conservation and restoration of the collection.

AUTHOR BIO

Xiaoji Fang, senior conservator, is the head of the Thangkas Conservation Studio in the Conservation Department of the Palace Museum in Beijing, China. She received her PhD from the Chinese National Academy of Arts. Since 2008, she has worked in the Palace Museum. She has chaired four projects respectively from the National Social Science Foundation, China Postdoctoral Fund and the Palace Museum. She currently leads the project of research on thangkas collected in the Buddhist Room of the West Chamber of the Mental Cultivation Hall.

(Read the article and see all the images in the June-July 2022 "News in Conservation" Issue 90, p. 22-27)

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The Buddhist Room in the West Chamber of the Mental Cultivation Hall houses many thangkas in their original state, which are masterpieces from the heyday of the art of thangkas in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD). This paper gives an overview of the on-going project.
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