Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection is the first major exhibition to examine the subject of Tibetan book covers. For Tibetan Buddhists, books are a divine presence in which the Buddha lives and reveals himself, and they are venerated and handled with the utmost respect. Tibetan book cover design has more than a thousand-year history in which stylistic influences from Kashmir, India, Nepal, Central Asia, and later, China, were amalgamated into a uniquely Tibetan creation. In turn, Tibetan innovations such as the covers’ large size and amount of embellishment later influenced the covers of Mongolian and Chinese books. The majority of covers in Protecting Wisdom are Tibetan Buddhist, but included in the exhibition are a rare Bon-religion cover, two covers from Mongolia as well as an important pair of covers produced for the Ming Chinese emperor Yongle in circa 1411.
The decoration on these covers exhibits the supreme skill and consummate artistic expression of the finest artisans. Decorative techniques used on the covers include carving, incising, painting, gilding, inlay, as well as combinations of these techniques as highlighted in the exhibition by photographic enlargements of details. The carving ranges from light incisions to very high relief set in deep hollows in which figures play in light and shadow. Embellishment can be found on the covers’ outside and inside faces as well as on the thick edges, an area that functions like a spine and is visible when the books are housed on library shelves. Painting can be the primary form of decoration, but it often accompanies the carved decoration in large areas such as the borders or in brightly painted details that highlight the design, such as a deity’s red lips or the green-and-black scaled tail of a snake deity.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.