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    a view from tibet
by Fred Stern
Portrait of
Taklung Thangpa Chenpo

Central Tibet
ca. 1200
Nepalese artist
ca. 1225-50
Book Cover with
Manjuvajra and Consort
Flanked by Lamas

Nepalese artist
Central Tibet
late 13th century
Mandala of the
Six Chakravartins

Nepalese artist
Central Tibet
ca. 1429-56
Portrait of a Lama
Central Tibet
ca. 1075-1100
"Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet," Oct. 6, 1998-Jan. 17, 1999, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Thankas (painted hangings) and mandalas (ritual diagrams showing deities surrounded by saints and attendants) were originally produced to enhance the religious experiences of monks in Tibetan monasteries. Their use was similar in many ways to that of sacred objects in the medieval churches of the West. The religious artists hoped that the thankas would help the monks to achieve a meditative state, or experience a "high."

This exhibition of 55 thankas, book covers and mandalas celebrates the Chidar ("later diffusion of the faith") period (1200-1500), when Buddhism became the dominant religion in Tibet. The flowering of Buddhism in Tibet was originally set off by the arrival of the Indian teacher and philosopher Atisha (982-1054), a religious fundamentalist who lived in a cave some 16 miles from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. The cave, which is still preserved, is "high up on a snowy mountainside surrounded by junipers and wild roses."

For several generations this art was the province of South Indian artists who fashioned these hangings in Tibet, or produced them in accordance with the instructions of visiting Tibetan abbots and priests. When Buddhism faded in India with the rise of the Moslem Mongols (Mughals) in the late 11th century, Tibet became the sacred land of Buddhism. Artists from Nepal and China then replaced Indian artists in the production of sacred objects.

The images of sitting, kneeling and dancing gods and their entranced disciples seem at first strange to Western eyes. Whereas Christian altar pieces frequently incorporate donor portraits, the Indians' thankas include images of Tibetan abbots, magicians and priests.

One of the earliest thankas in the show depicts the Buddhist hierarch, or priest king, who founded the Taklung monastery in 1180 A.D. Seated on a throne in a mountain cave, a sacred site for gods and ascetics, the hierarch assumes a gesture of religious instruction with his delicately posed fingers. In a frontally posed image such as this one, it was thought that the eyes of the teacher met those of the disciple. And as in many of the hangings, the spiritual lineage of the saint is depicted across the length and width of the work.

Another thanka shows the mahasiddha (magician/priest) Virupa, whose legend says that he was discouraged when he felt that his meditations were unsuccessful. The thanka depicts Virupa receiving instructions from the goddess Vajrayogini in a dream, which helped him to achieve an enlightned state. More than 60 vignettes frame this beautifully executed, colorful hanging. It was probably made by a Nepalese artist between 1216 and 1244.

A book cover, with Manjuvajra and consort flanked by Lamas of the late 13th century, was recently purchased by the Metropolitan. It depicts Majuvajra, a form of the bodhisattva (a holy man who defers Buddhahood, in order to serve mankind) embracing his consort. Two lamas, one on either side, make gestures of instruction.

A mandala of the Six Chakravartins (Enlightened Universal Rulers) is dated from a relatively late period -- 1429-56 -- and originates in the monastery at Ngor. In each of six courts is a ruler surrounded by his consort, courtiers and other members of his household. There are gates leading to all four points of the compass, each with its complement of guardians. The painting offers a dazzling display of artistic skill, sensitivity to color and superb geometric form.

Until recently it was believed that fewer than 40 thankas had survived the fury of the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950 and the onslaught of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1976. Fortunately, however, more than 300 thankas of the important Tibetan Buddhist period (1200-1500) appear to be extant. Many are in Western museums such as the Guimet in Paris, the Cleveland Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum and the Met in the U.S., as well as private collections around the globe.

"Hopefully we will find others," says Steven M. Kossak, co-curator of the show. The Tibetans have a way of secreting treasures, perhaps in closed-up caves or other hiding places. In any case, the rarely seen works in this exhibition are definitely worth a visit.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.