15. Manuscript Cover with Mythical Creatures

13th Century
Pigment and gold on wood
10½ by 29¼ in. (26.5 by 74 cm.)

Axel Ball Collection

John Eskenazi, Inaugural Exhibition - Images of Faith, London, 1995, no. 18, illus.
Kathleen Kalista, Masterpieces of Himalayan Art from a European Private Collection, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2009, no. 21, illus.
Rossi & Rossi Ltd., Gods and Demons of the Himalayas, exhibition catalogue, London, 2012, no. 30, illus.
Jeff Watt, Himalayan Art Resources, item no. 88585

A pair of exceptionally elegant mythical beasts graces the center of this unusual manuscript cover.  Turned toward one another, the golden creatures, half dragon and half griffon, are depicted within an elaborate, foliate pattern.  Escaping from their open mouths, graceful tongues of fire intertwine the animals with the scrollwork in which they are suspended.  A beaded border of pearls surrounds the inner section of the frieze, separating it from the outer section which is also decorated by a similar openwork design.  The entirety of the gilded portion is carved in low relief against a brilliant red background.  

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.