Tibet has long fascinated the West. Its majestic landscape, ancient culture, and remarkable spiritual leaders have stirred imaginations and inspired artists for centuries. Indeed, Tibetís beauty is so overwhelming that even the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan spared it from his hordes in the thirteenth century.
The Peabody Essex Museum offers a rare glimpse into Tibet, its artistic achievements, and its rich cultural heritage with The Mystical Arts of Tibet, an exhibition of art, religious objects, and photography spanning more than 500 years. The exhibition opened June 25 and will run through October 17, 1999.
The Mystical Arts of Tibet showcases 108 religious and secular objects, including thirty from the Dalai Lamaís personal collection. It comprises exquisite tangka, or watercolor, paintings; more than twelve Buddha statues, some dating from the fifteenth century; ritual instruments of silver and gold; contemporary objects; and twenty-one vivid photographs of the region from the Tibet Image Bank in London. Most of the works come from the Drepung Loseling Monastery, whose 580-year-old order of monks now lives in exile in southern India.
The selection is meant to underscore the central place of visual arts in the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, says Susan Bean, the Peabody Essex Museumís Curator of Asian, Oceanic, and African Arts and Cultures.
Tibetís Buddhist history reaches back to the seventh century, when the religion spread from India. The Mystical Arts of Tibet illustrates through painting, sculpture and ritual objects how Tibetans embraced the Indian Buddhist traditions and wove them into their own cultural tapestry.
One such work is Lam Rim Assembly Tree. In dazzling colors, this early twentieth century painting shows groups of historical and religious figures surrounding the Buddha. Among them are the Hindu gods Indra and Brahma. The entire assembly is supported on branches and leaves of a tree, symbolizing the organic nature of Buddhist teaching and its goal of unity with nature. The painting is meant to inspire contemplation and lead to enlightenment.
The artist who crafted Lama Tsongkhapa, a gilded bronze statue from the mid-fifteenth century, had similar aims. The lama, or Tibetan monk, sits serenely under the arc of a golden halo. The halo is adorned with elephants, snow lions, and unicorns, each representing Buddhist ideals like generosity, patience, and wisdom.
Not all the images are so peaceful. There are statues and paintings of Vajrabhairava or The Diamond Terrifier, a three-eyed, bull-faced spirit who chases away death and spiritual decay. And thereís a sixteenth century painting of Pehar, a protector deity who wields a bow and arrow with two of his six hands.
The Mystical Arts of Tibet also brings to life the ancient rites of Buddhism through objects and clothing of The Dalai Lama, the traditional high priest of Tibetan Buddhism and recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. They include The Dalai Lamaís cho-goe, or ceremonial robe, and a woodblock print of his sacred Buddhist texts.
This exhibition is different because it has been curated by Tibetan monks, not museum professionals, says Dr. Bean. The works are meant to highlight the survival of Tibetan cultural heritage in the severe and challenging context of exile.
The exhibition, which originated at the Oglethorpe University Museum in Atlanta, grew out of a 1988 tour of sacred Tibetan dance and music organized by the Loseling Monastery. The monks at the monastery wanted to spread Tibetan culture abroad as the Chinese government was suppressing it at home. The response was overwhelming, with Sacred Tibetan Temple Music holding a top ten listing on the New Age music charts as part of the score for the film, Seven Years in Tibet. These Tibetan paintings, sculptures and sacred objects have generated similar enthusiasm.
The Mystical Arts of Tibet is co-sponsored by the Loseling Institute and Richard Gere Productions, a corporation set up by the actor to preserve and promote Tibetan culture.