‘Protecting Wisdom’ explores Tibetan, Buddhist book covers | Arts & Culture

‘Protecting Wisdom’ explores Tibetan, Buddhist book covers

‘Protecting Wisdom’ explores Tibetan, Buddhist book covers

Shakyamuni, outer face, upper book cover, Tibet, vol. 1, 14th–15th century, wood with traces of paint and gilding, MacLean Collection

The University of Michigan Museum of Art exhibition presents 35 finely crafted book covers dating from the 11th to the 18th centuries that showcase the array of decoration typical of these sacred items.

“Protecting Wisdom” is the first museum exhibition in the United States devoted to Tibetan book covers. It illuminates a type of art that, although virtually unknown, will charm and intrigue visitors both familiar and unfamiliar with Tibetan art.

“Before becoming the objects of art, the covers’ purpose was protecting book pages and the religious teachings that these pages held,” said Natsu Oyobe, UMMA’s curator of Asian art. “People can imagine the great importance of the book pages that once existed.”

To honor the Buddha, as well as to accrue good merit toward a future rebirth, elaborate book covers were frequently commissioned, most commonly made from carved, painted and often gilded wood. Works of handheld relief sculpture, Tibetan book covers were lavish productions that reflect the intense devotion with which Tibetans regard books.  

“People can compare the religious images here with those in other religious art forms, such as miniature manuscripts in medieval Europe,” Oyobe said. “You see the similar way of showing reverence.”

“The Four Gods of the Kadam “ in Celestial Palaces, outer face, lower book cover, Western Tibet, 12th century, wood with paint and gilding. MacLean Collection

“The Four Gods of the Kadam “ in Celestial Palaces, outer face, lower book cover, Western Tibet, 12th century, wood with paint and gilding. MacLean Collection

Tibetan book cover design has a history of more than a thousand years, during which stylistic influences from Kashmir, India, Nepal, Central Asia and China were fused into a uniquely Tibetan creation. In turn, Tibetan innovations such as the covers’ large size—they are often more than two feet long and a foot wide—and amount of embellishment later influenced the covers of Mongolian and Chinese books.

“In China, during the Cultural Revolution, some of these works were used as cutting boards—you can see slicing marks on several works in the exhibition,” Oyobe said. “Later, these were re-evaluated as works of art.”

A highlight of the exhibition is a superbly carved and painted book cover from the early 1290s.

The exhibition is free and open to the public from Nov. 26, 2016, to April 2, 2017. The University of Michigan Museum of Art is located at 525 South State St. in Ann Arbor, and is open 11 a.m-5 p.m Tuesday-Saturday, and noon-5 p.m on Sunday.

Lead support for the exhibition is provided by the U-M Office of the Provost, U-M Health System and the Herbert W. and Susan L. Johe Endowment. Additional support is provided by the U-M Center for the Education of Women’s Frances and Sydney Lewis Visiting Leaders Fund and the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures.