These three magnificent paintings depict the "Three Purities," the supreme deities of religious Taoism. The Taoist cannon, compiled in 1444-45, identifies these three deities as the source of all Taoist teachings and as rulers of the Taoist universe. They are painted like enthroned emperors with meticulous detail in the colorful outline style associated with traditional Buddhist painting and the best court portraiture. The paintings in this rare set represent the three Purities as they were standardized by The Complete Perfection sect of Taoism, which rose to prominence during the Mongol rule of the Yuan dynasty (1280-1368). The top deity, the Celestial Worthy of the Primordial Beginning (blue robe), was a patriarchal teacher and patriarch of the highest scriptural tradition. Second in rank was the Celestial Worthy of the Numinous Treasure, patron of the second scriptural tradition, the Cavern of Mystery (black robe). This tradition was key to the development of Taoist rituals and art. Finally came the Celestial Worthy of the Way and it's Power (green robe), better known as Lao-tzu (ca. 6th century b.c.), patriarch of the third scriptural tradition. Lao-tzu arrived to restore harmony between the heavens and humanity through the great philosophic classic attributed to him, the Tao-te-China (4th century b.c.).
Although images of the Three Purities would have been essential in most Taoist temples, few examples remain. This rare group is the only complete set know to have survived from the Ming dynasty.