Picturing Enlightenment: Thangka in the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College

Seventh Dalai Lama and His Chakrasamvara Initiation
August 26, 2011 – January 1, 2012, first installation
January 27, 2012 – July 8, 2012, second installation
Daniels Gallery

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This special exhibition marks the completion of an extensive project to conserve the Mead Art Museum’s collection of thangka (pronounced “tan-kah”)—scroll paintings of Buddhist figures. So fragile that they have remained largely inaccessible to scholars and museum visitors for nearly six decades, Amherst College’s eighteen thangka, primarily from Tibet, have been gently cleaned, stabilized, and repaired by conservators at Museum Textile Services in Andover, Massachusetts, under the leadership of Camille Myers Breeze. A generous grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and additional support from the Amherst College Department of Religion underwrote the conservation treatment. The Louis and Nettie Horch Foundation provided further support for the conservation of one thangka.

Following twenty-one months of painstaking attention, the Mead’s thangka have emerged transformed. Vibrantly colored, intricately patterned, and ranging in height from two to nine feet, each work rewards close study. Visitors will have the opportunity to become familiar with the entire collection of eighteen thangka over the course of the academic year. Nine thangka will be displayed from August 26, 2011 to January 1, 2012. The remaining nine thangka will be presented from January 27 to July 8, 2012.

Thangka function as objects of Buddhist meditation, ceremony, teaching, and historical recounting. The central images—painted with mostly mineral pigments bound with animal hide glue onto fabrics impregnated with a gesso ground—depict Buddha, bodhisattva, other deities, and eminent monks. The paintings are surrounded by fabric mounts comprised of multiple, hand-sewn layers of silks and cottons, suspended with wooden dowels. In some thangka, a simple field of unpatterned cotton surrounds the painted image. In more elaborate examples, ornate silk brocades encompass the paintings, and full-length silk veils cover the thangka when they are not being viewed. Fabric “doors,” sometimes sewn beneath the images on the mounts, provide a virtual entrance by which to “enter” the paintings’ spiritual worlds.

Most of the thangka in the Mead’s collection would have been commissioned by monasteries and temples. Religious leaders would have specified the paintings’ subjects, and the completed thangka would have been displayed in groups, sometimes numbering more than one hundred in a single room. Before and during the painting process, the artists performed invocation rites; when the thangka were completed, consecration ceremonies invited/compelled deities to inhabit the images. The unnamed painters of the Mead’s thangka—like present-day thangka painters, and like painters of Western icons—deliberately employed conservative artistic styles and traditional iconographic forms necessary to religious practice. As a result, thangka have changed only some supporting elements over the past millennium.

Ten thangka donated to the Mead in 1952 by Mrs. Thyrza Field Hamilton, widow of Colonel George L. Hamilton (Amherst College Class of 1893) comprise the core of the museum’s collection. Those mostly eighteenth-century thangka reportedly originally hung in the Tengyeling (or Tengye Ling) monastery in Lhasa, Tibet. When the Hamiltons’ collection came to the Mead, just three years after the museum’s opening, the thangka ranked among the first works of Asian art to enter Amherst’s collections. Today, as Buddhism and Tibetan culture have risen to prominence as academic subjects and matters of popular interest, the Mead’s thangka have the potential to play a vital role in their modern American home. This exhibition seeks to reintroduce Amherst’s collection of thangka to the college’s western Massachusetts’ community, and a broad regional audience.

The exhibition will be enriched by an extensive program of museum events, including gallery talks, public lectures, and thangka-focused meditations—all open to the public and free of charge. On September 16, Robert Thurman, Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, and Marilyn Rhie, Jesse Wells Post Professor of Art and Professor of East Asian Studies at Smith College, will offer a joint presentation exploring issues in Tibetan art history and Buddhism raised by the exhibition. On October 19, Camille Myers Breeze, Director and Head Conservator of Museum Textile Services in Andover, Massachusetts, will present the public lecture, “Opening Doors: Conserving the Mead Art Museum’s Thangka Collection.” On October 19 and December 7, the museum will devote the sessions in its ongoing series, “Meditation at the Mead,” to Buddhist meditative practices; both meditations will engage the exhibition’s thangka.

Other exhibition-related events will be hosted by campus and community organizations. From October 13 to 16, Amherst College will welcome monks from the Tibetan Buddhist Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca, New York, where they will create a sand mandala in the Frost Library. The event will be marked by opening and closing ceremonies. On October 14, the Frost Library at Amherst College will open an exhibition of contemporary paintings depicting Dhyani Buddhas by regional artist Joan Bredin-Price. The sand mandala and Bredin-Price exhibition coincide with the Fourth Annual Seminar on Exploring Buddhism: Buddhist Views on Death and Impermanence, to be held at Amherst College on October 13 and 14 and at Florence Civic Center on October 15 and 16, featuring Khen Rinpoche Geshe Lobzang Tsetan, Abbot, Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, South India, and Professor David L. Gardner, Department of Religion, Colorado College. On October 22 and 23, Amherst Cinema will screen My Reincarnation, and arrange for the documentary film’s director, Jennifer Fox, and its subject, Khyentse Yeshi Namkhai, to speak.  

A complete listing of exhibition-related events is available here. None of these events would have been possible without the ideas, energy, and actions of two Amherst College faculty members: Maria Heim, Associate Professor of Religion and Buddhist Studies and Chair of the Religion Department, and Paola Zamperini, Associate Professor of Asian Languages and Civilizations.

The exhibition is made possible with generous support from the Hall and Kate Peterson Fund and the Wise Fund for Fine Arts.