Gilding the Lotus: Enriching the Himalayan Collection
On View June 10 through October 2006 in Gallery 232
Gold, ivory, and gemstones are revered in cultures all over the world as symbols of material and spiritual wealth. In the Buddhist and Hindu art of Tibet and Nepal, these precious and semi precious materials are used to create images that are not only visually magnificent, but also function as pious offerings, believed to benefit the donor, creator, and all who view the work. The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently acquired a number of Himalayan objects that demonstrate the skilled use of precious substances in devotional artworks—many of which will be on view for the first time in Gilding the Lotus: Enriching the Himalayan Collection. This focused exhibition explores the artistic diversity as well as the spiritual significance of gold in Himalayan art, featuring 17 works dating from the 11th century to 2005. They will be displayed from June 10 through October 2006 in Gallery 232.
More than a glittering feast for the eyes, the materials used to create these artworks often represent spiritual transformation. Gold is frequently applied to religious paintings, sculptures, and textiles, and serves as a symbol of purity and truth as well as the artistic realization of light and, by extension, enlightenment. Other precious materials carry distinct symbolic meanings. Ivory represents power; coral and pearls signify the sun and moon, as well as feminine and masculine energy; images of punch-marked coins, gold ingots, and crossed gems suggest rewards promised to the faithful; flaming or wish-granting jewels (called citimani in Sanskrit) fulfill desires and appear both singly and piled in a heap. In Buddhist art the triple-gem (triratna) symbolizes the enlightened Buddha, Buddhist teachings, and the Buddhist community.
“These works not only reflect the Himalayan love of visual opulence, but also emphasize the Museum’s historic and continuing dedication to enriching understanding of the sophisticated religious arts of the Himalayan region,” said Katherine Anne Paul, Assistant Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art. While a few of the works on view came to the Museum in the 1920s and 1930s, 13 of the 17 objects entered the collection in the last 14 years as donations or purchases made possible by endowed funds.
Given the symbolic importance of precious materials, it is not surprising that Himalayan artisans developed numerous ways to embellish devotional art. Mercury gilding, cold gold paint, as well as inlaid precious and semiprecious metals and stones distinguish the majority of Himalayan art, both Buddhist and Hindu. Even textiles are embellished with precious metals: thinly beaten strips of gold and silver are wrapped around threads and woven into luxurious brocades that adorn temples, paintings, and sculptures.
One of the highlights of the exhibition—and a generous gift in honor of the Museum’s 125th anniversary from renowned Asian art collectors John and Berthe Ford—is a Tibetan ser thang, or painting in which the entire painted surface is covered with gold; the figures are drawn in ruby-red outlines with sapphire and emerald accents. It depicts Vaisravana, Lord of Wealth, surrounded by his divine retinue as well as affluent monks and rich merchants who offer the wealth-deities luxurious textiles, sacred texts, musical instruments, exotic fruits, and gemstones.
Also of note is an extraordinary Tibetan temple hanging (phan in Tibetan) with silver and gold wrapped threads woven into ornate Chinese brocades that are sewn into symbols of riches. Measuring over 4 by 24 feet, it features gold ornamentation and multi-colored wish-granting jewels that appear to rain from the sky. This hanging would have been displayed inside a temple on special occasions.
About the Collection of Indian and Himalayan Art
The Philadelphia Museum of Art contains one of the finest collections of South Asian art in the United States, including the spectacular Pillared Temple Hall (16th century) from Southern India, paintings, sculptures, and textiles from Nepal, Tibet, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan; and a variety of decorative arts. Works from the Indian and Himalayan Art Collections are displayed in a series of galleries (224, 227, 229-232) located on the second floor. The William P. Wood Gallery highlights changing installations of 16th- through 20th-century South Asian art. The Himalayan Gallery (232) is devoted to works from Nepal, Tibet, and Mongolia including Buddhist and Hindu paintings, sculptures, textiles, and ceremonial objects.