Enlightened times

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 56

A thangka of Ratnasambhava Tibet, 14th century

Enlightened times

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 56

Tibetan Buddhist monks produced exquisite paintings and sculptures in pursuit of enlightenment - with wealthy overlords as their patrons. Sam van Schaik traces their origins

The vast empire of the first great ruler of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo, stretched from northern India and Nepal to the kingdoms of the Silk Road in central Asia. When the emperor married two foreign princesses, one from Nepal and the other from China, both brides brought statues of the Buddha from their homelands, so Songtsen, who ruled in the 7th century, built temples to honor them. Thus began the rich architectural and visual heritage of Buddhism in Tibet.

Emperors came and went, but Tibetan artistic production developed in monasteries of which the imperial overlords were patrons, and included exquisite paintings, statues in precious metals and highly decorated manuscripts of Buddhist scriptures. Masterpieces expressing some of the key ideals in Buddhist art, such as the 'thangka', or painting on fabric of two important abbots (left), and one of the finest examples of 16th century Tibetan painting, will feature in Bonhams sale of an important Himalayan collection in New York in March.

Modern historians cast doubt on the story of Songtsen Gampo's brides, asking if the Nepalese princess really existed. But there is little doubt that the holiest of holy, the Buddhist Jokhang temple in Lhasa, was built during his reign, with the help of Nepalese architects and craftsmen.

Tibet's most celebrated Buddhist emperor, was Tri Song Detsen, who ruled in the second half of the 8th century. During his reign, Buddhism was established as the state religion, and Samye, the first Buddhist monastery, was built. Samye was laid out as a microcosm of the universe as it was known to Indian Buddhist cosmology, with a three-story central temple, representing Mount Sumeru, the center of the universe. The stories were designed in three different styles according to one early history – the top was Indian, the middle Chinese, while the bottom was in the emergent Tibetan style.

Attractive Tibetans were found to act as models for the faces of sculptures, although their bodies were based on traditional forms. Many more monasteries were built throughout the Tibetan imperial domain in the following years.

Eventually the rulers overstretched themselves, and by the middle of the 9th century the empire was beginning to fragment. Local insurrections and a quarrel over succession eventually led to the demise of the empire and the beginning of what has been called Tibet's 'dark age'. Many monasteries were abandoned without imperial funding, and monks gave up their robes. Yet this was the period when Buddhism really began to take root in Tibet, with the practices of tantric Buddhism and its emphasis on ritual practices, some of them sexual, as the path to divine bodily and spiritual union becoming widespread. The sculpture overleaf of Vajradhara and his consort in sexual union, clad only in gem-set jewelry, is a superb example.

Despite the end of imperial sponsorship, Buddhist artistic creation flourished, thanks to the idea that merit was gained through creating, or sponsoring the creation of religious objects. An accumulation of merit leads to better things in this life and beyond, and merit can also be dedicated to others. Repeating the image of a deity in the same work, such as in the 14th century painting of Ratnasambhava, above, multiplies the amount of merit created. This work is thought to be the only survivor from a
set of similar paintings of different Buddhas.

The popularity of the Vajrayana led Tibetans to travel to India in search of new teachings and practices in the late 10th century. Some of them gained large followings, and were able to establish their own monasteries, which gradually became new centers of power, both religious and political. The residents of one of the largest, Sakya, became the rulers of much of Tibet in the 13th century, when they were granted suzerainty by the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. Kublai is said to have given Tibet to the head of the Sakya school, Chogyal Pakpa, in exchange for a Vajrayana initiation, according to the school's chronicles. The relationship between these two men – a powerful patron supporting a religious leader – remained the model for Tibetan politics until the 20th century.

During the Sakya era, donations from Tibet's Mongol rulers meant that the monastery became famous for its ornate architecture and magnificent paintings and sculptures. By then, the basic forms of Tibetan artistic production were in place: hung paintings with silk brocade borders, statues made from metals such as gold and copper, like those in Bonhams sale, and manuscripts of the Buddhist scriptures decorated with brightly painted miniatures. Sakya rule over Tibet only lasted until the middle of the 14th century, but artistic and intellectual production continued unabated.

In the 17th century Tibet was brought under the rule of another religious school headed by the Dalai Lamas, an arrangement that lasted until the mid 20th century. Today, Tibetans around the world continue to create the wonderful art inspired by Vajrayana Buddhism.

Sam van Schaik is a Tibetologist based at the British Library, a principle investigator on the International Dunhuang Project and author of Tibet, A History.

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