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Taoist Ritual

  Taoist Priest's Robe (Detail)
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Taoist Priest's Robe (detail)
Qing dynasty, mid-19th century
Embroidered silk tapestry
126 x 186.3 cm
Minneapolis Institute of Arts; the John R. Van Derlip Fund
cat. no. 51


Taoist Priest's Robe

Stars and constellations have always played an important role in Taoism. Many of the earliest Taoist deities were star gods, and the highest gods of the Taoist pantheon dwell in different parts of the sky. Consequently, in many Taoist meditations, the priest visualizes himself either rising to the heavens to meet with these gods or bringing the energies of different celestial bodies down into himself.

The back of this robe shows some of the most important stars and constellations worshiped in Taoism. In the center of the robe is a tower that represents the celestial home of the gods. Surrounding this tower are 28 dots representing the 28 Lunar Mansions: constellations through which the moon passes during its rotation of the earth. These constellations played a vital role in Chinese astrology; a different deity governed each one. Above these constellations are three gold dots representing a group of stars called the Three Terraces. These stars, near the Northern Dipper (Big Dipper) in what the ancient Chinese considered the most important part of the sky, were directly linked to the emperor and his three highest ministers. To either side of the Three Terraces are the sun (right) and the moon (left), which can be identified by the traditional symbol of a hare pounding an elixir of immortality. The sky around all these images is filled with auspicious symbols, including five large discs representing cranes (symbols of long life) and stylized versions of the word for long life, shou, embroidered in gold. On the bottom of the robe are five peaks corresponding to the five cranes. The number five also suggests the Five Phases. The sleeves of the robe are bordered by the Eight Trigrams of the Book of Changes, symbolizing the various possible combinations of yin and yang in the world.

The celestial "map" on the back of this robe would have been used to symbolize the union of the heavens and the earth in the sacred space of the Taoist altar. It also illustrates the celestial energy of the gods called upon to participate in the ritual.




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