07. Manuscript Cover with Prajnaparamita, Bhaishajyaguru, and Vairocana

14th Century
Polychrome and gilding on wood
10½ by 27 in. (26.5 by 68.6 cm.)

European Private Collection

This richly-carved example depicts Prajnaparamita in the center, flanked by Bhaishajyaguru and Vairocana.  Prajnaparamita, the name for both a specific text and the personification of that text, represents the embodiment of the perfect wisdom of all buddhas as indicated by her Sanskrit name, which translates as “Perfection of Wisdom.”  One of her main attributes is the book, which is depicted as a long rectangular manuscript of palm leaves and represents the Prajnaparamita text.  She is also known as the “Mother of all Buddhas.”  Bhaishajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, is also known by the name Vaidurya Prabha Raja, the 'King of Sapphire Light.'

Compare closely-related examples in the MacLean Collection (Kathryn H. Selig Brown, Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection, nos. 34 and 41) and at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel (acc. #W.lld14367.R0136).  Also compare the book cover at The Norton Simon Museum with Amitabha in the center (M.2010.1.209.S).

Indian monks and scholars were responsible for the dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet, largely due to the beautifully illustrated Buddhist texts that they brought to the country.  As early as the seventh century, these texts had begun to be translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan.  By the twelfth century, the Indian Sanskrit canon had been completely written in the Tibetan language.  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.

Primarily inspired by eastern Indian medieval book covers which consisted of two wooden covers on either side of a series of palm leaf or birch bark pages, Tibetan artists took license in their continuation of the tradition.  Tibetan manuscript covers were often larger in format than their Indian counterparts, largely due to the fact that their folios tended to be of strong paper which allowed for greater size.  Also, the covers were greatly diverse in their innovative and exuberant scrollwork designs.  It is only natural, given that the manuscript covers were meant to house sacred texts, that Tibetan artists were inspired to create truly beautiful and unique works such as the present example.  In turn, Tibetan innovations such as the covers’ large size and amount of embellishment later influenced the covers of Mongolian and Chinese books.