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The Taoist Pantheon

  Taoist Deity of Heaven (Detail)
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Traditionally attributed to Wu Daozi (active 8th century)
Taoist Official of Heaven (detail)
Southern Song dynasty, first half of 12th century
Hanging scroll; ink, colors, and gold on silk
125.5 x 55.9 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Special Chinese and Japanese Fund
cat. no. 69


Taoist Official of Heaven

This and the following two paintings form a triptych depicting the Three Officials. The Three Officials were ancient Taoist deities worshiped since the second century A.D. They were believed to keep records of human deeds on earth and to control each person's life span and fate after death. As a result, they were stern, imposing figures of particular importance to Taoist believers. The ancient Chinese believed illness to be the result of bad deeds, which the Three Officials were responsible for recording and punishing. When a Taoist follower became ill or experienced other crises, the priest would submit petitions to the Three Officials on his or her behalf. One petition was burned to transmit it to the Official of Heaven; one was buried for the Official of Earth; and one was submerged for the Official of Water.

This painting shows the Official of Heaven at his desk in the heavens, surrounded by a group of officers and female attendants, called "jade maidens." In front of his desk kneels a Taoist priest, suggesting that this painting was originally made for a ritual in which the priest would envision himself in a similar audience. A lesser officer of the Official of Heaven rises from the lower right, probably intending to either report on the human world or deliver an official petition.

The dynamic movement of the clouds upon which these figures hover and the remarkable detail of this and the other paintings from the triptych make them among the most important Taoist paintings to have survived from the Southern Song dynasty.




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