09. Manuscript Cover with Vairocana, Sakyamuni, and Amoghasiddhi

Circa 12th Century
Polychrome and gilding on wood
9 5/8 by 27½ in. (24.5 by 69.9 cm.)

European Private Collection

This elegant book cover depicts three Buddhas, from left to right, Vairocana, Sakyamuni, and Amoghasiddhi, seated in a stately manner within their celestial palaces.  Amoghasiddhi is one of the Five Wisdom Buddhas of the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism. He is associated with the accomplishment of the Buddhist path and of the destruction of the poison of envy.  His name means “He Whose Accomplishment is Not in Vain,” his consort is Tara, and his mounts are garudas.

Compare a stylistically-related book cover from the same period in the MacLean Collection (Kathryn H. Selig Brown, Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection, no. 6).  The author notes the skill of the artist who was able “to work adroitly in a relatively shallow area” to present the figures in an almost three-dimensional manner.

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.