Star Deities of the Northern and Central Dippers, Ming dynasty, Jingtai period (1450–56), dated 1454
Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk; Image 54 11/16 x 30 9/16 in. (138.9 x 77.6 cm), Overall with mounting 104 5/8 x 38 in. (265.7 x 96.5 cm), Overall with knobs 104 5/8 x 42 1/8 in. (265.7 x 107 cm)
Lent by Oscar L. Tang (L.1999.108)
The identity of these deities is given in an inscription, written in gold, along the right-hand margin: "Portrait of the Northern Dipper, Central Dipper, and Root Destiny Star Lords." This painting was once part of an imperially commissioned set of paintings attested to by the inscription in the lower left: "By imperial order, directed and supervised by the senior eunuchs of the Directorate of the Imperial Household Service, Shang Yi, Wang Qin, and others."
According to scholar Shawn Eichman, there are five dipper constellations in Daoist astronomy, with the Central Dipper as the leader and the Northern Dipper ruling human destiny. In this depiction, the seven star gods of the Central Dipper are shown in the lower register wearing regal robes and crowns, while the nine stars of the Northern Dipper, here represented by seven androgynous figures for the bright stars followed by two bearded figures for the hidden stars, wear less formal robes and occupy the middle register. Eichman identifies the small figure with two attendants in the upper right as possibly being a Root Destiny Officer, who descends to earth to accept offerings on the cyclical anniversary of each person's birth.
Rituals for these and other astral deities are performed by both Daoists and Buddhists within ritual spaces surrounded by paintings of deities either as murals (as in the Yuan-dynasty temple Yonglegong) or as sets of scroll paintings.