Buddhist Manuscript Paintings on View at Metropolitan Museum This Summer

ArtDaily.org, Aug 2, 2008

NEW YORK. -- An installation of 30 palm-leaf folios from Indian illuminated manuscripts will open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on July 29, 2008.

Folio from an Ashtasahashirika Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) manuscript
showing a seated Bodhisattva Maitreya. India (West Bengal) or Bangladesh.
Pala period, early 12th century. Opaque watercolor on palm leaf.

Featuring some of the earliest surviving Indian manuscripts, dating from the 10th to the 13th century, Early Buddhist Manuscript Painting: The Palm-leaf Tradition will center on one remarkable Mahayanist Buddhist text, the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra ('Perfection of Wisdom'), illustrated through the Museum's rare holdings of eastern Indian and Nepalese illuminated palm-leaf manuscripts, book-covers, initiation cards, thankas, and sculptures.

"Indian illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts of the 10th to 13th centuries are extremely rare, and the few that survived did so outside India, principally in the monasteries of Tibet. The painting style we witness in these earliest surviving manuscripts reflects stylistic conventions developed in Indian temple and monastic mural painting, now almost completely lost to us. Thus these manuscript paintings provide a unique insight into Indian painting styles at the close of the first millennium A.D.," said John Guy, Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art in the Museum's Department of Asian Art. Drawn from the Museum's own holdings of illuminated palm-leaf manuscripts, the installation will feature many rarely seen works, including some that have never been exhibited.

Traditional Indian manuscripts consist of a series of unbound folios, prepared from treated and trimmed leaves of the palm tree, and secured between wooden covers.

The folios and covers were beautifully illuminated with miniature illustrations, typically with images of the deities to whom the text was dedicated and who were evoked through the recitation of the text.

Narrative themes, such as scenes from the life of the historical Buddha, occur more rarely. These manuscripts have helped transmit Indian religious thought for over 2,000 years, and from at least the 10th century served as the vehicle for preserving some of the earliest surviving paintings known from India.

On view will be a series of remarkable folios from editions of the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript, depicting both the wisdom goddess Prajnaparamita herself, and Buddhist Bodhisattvas who serve as the embodiment of compassion to all living creatures, extending blessings and boons to devotees.

A 10th- to 11th-century illustrated book cover, probably painted in Nepal, depicts the goddess flanked by scenes from the life of the historical Buddha. Other highlights of the installation are two folios from a unique edition of the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript (ca. 1090), one of which depicts the Buddha giving safety to mariners.