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Taoist Ritual

  Taoist Priest's Robe (Detail)
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Taoist Priest's Robe (detail)
Qing dynasty,
c. 1650/1700
Embroidered satin
127 x 208.7 cm
Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Chester Beatty gift
cat. no. 47


Taoist Priest's Robe

Among the most visually and technically stunning works of Taoist art are the robes worn by Taoist priests. These sumptuous garments, like most other pieces of Taoist art, were made for ritual use. Their spectacular images were thus not just decorative, but also symbolic, designed to transform the area around the altar from an ordinary space into a celestial court. Taoist deities themselves are often depicted wearing such robes. By putting on a robe such as this one, the Taoist priest shared in the divinity of the gods.

As a bridge between the human and spirit worlds, the Taoist priest is required to continually renew the good relationship between the people of his community and the gods. Most Taoist rituals lead up to an audience with the gods modeled after an official meeting between the emperor and his ministers. In such an audience, the priest envisions himself in a celestial court like the one depicted on the back of this robe.

In the center of the top register are the Three Purities, the three highest Taoist gods. Included in their number is the Celestial Worthy of the Way and Its Power, the title of the deified sage Laozi. Below them, in the center of the group, is the Jade Emperor. While the Three Purities were high-ranking deities far removed from the world of mortals, the Jade Emperor was a more active spiritual leader who governed the popular pantheon of regional gods incorporated into Taoism. This explains his central place on this robe. The Jade Emperor is surrounded by a celestial assembly. Many of those gathered can be identified by the names embroidered near their images. During a ritual, the Taoist priest would have visualized each of these deities descending to the altar to hear petitions on behalf of his patrons. On the bottom of the robe are four trigrams from the Book of Changes (Yi jing) that symbolize different combinations of yin (represented by a broken line) and yang (represented by an unbroken line) energy.




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