Icons Worthwhile to See

The Tibetan Pantheon "Icons Worthwhile to See" –
Das Tibetische Pantheon "Ikonen, heilsam zu sehen"


27. September 2000 bis 11. Februar 2001

All texts in the exhibition are both in English and German.

1810 fand in der Mongolei eine grosse Einweihungs-Zeremonie statt. Der 4. Panchen Lama, seine Heiligkeit Tenpei Nyima, war aus Tibet zu Besuch gekommen. Tag für Tag versammelten sich Hunderte wenn nicht Tausende von Menschen, hohe Lamas, kaiserlich-chinesische Beamte und Klosterfunktionäre ebenso wie einfache Mönche und Laien, um von ihm die vier grossen Einweihungen entgegenzunehmen. Aus Anlass der Feierlichkeiten liess man einen Satz Holzdrucke anfertigen mit Darstellung von Gottheiten dreier grosser Einweihungs-Zyklen. Die 507 kleinen Bilder, je drei pro Blatt, bildeten zusammen ein Buch aus losen Blättern wie in Tibet üblich. Heute existieren nur noch ganz wenige Sets dieser Holzdrucke.

Vor etwa 20 Jahren kam eine ausgemalte Version der über 500 Bilder umfassenden Sammlung zum Vorschein – eine besondere Rarität, da nur dieses eine ausgemalte Exemplar bekannt ist. Diese Kostbarkeit befindet sich heute im Besitz des Völkerkundemuseums der Universität Zürich. Während über zehn Jahren ist die Sammlung bearbeitet worden und wird nun der interessierten Öffentlichkeit vorgestellt – in einer Ausstellung im Foyersaal des Museums und als Publikation.
Beides wollen wir gemeinsam "einweihen" und zwar am Dienstag, dem 26. September 2000, um 18 Uhr.

The pantheon "Icons Worthwhile to See"

In 1810, a great empowerment ceremony was held in Mongolia. The 4th Panchen Lama, Tenpei Nyima (1781–1854), was visiting from Tibet. Day after day, hundreds or possibly thousands of people, from high lamas, Chinese imperial officials and monastic officials down to ordinary monks and lay people, gathered to receive from him the four empowerments of the great mandala of the Primordial Buddha. To mark the occasion, a set of pictorial blockprints was commissioned, depicting the deities of three great cycles of empowerments. They comprised 507 small images, printed three to a page in the usual loose-leaf format of Tibetan books.

On the back of each image, mantras were printed, to help imbue it with the presence of the deity represented – in the center, reading downwards, the five syllables OM AH HUM PHAT SVAHA, invoking the Body, Speech, Mind, Qualities and Activities of a Buddha, and around them the deity’s own mantra and a general mantra.

The blockprints became known to Western scholars in 1890, when Eugen Pander came across a set in Peking and published some of the images. This or another copy eventually reached Berlin where it was used by scholars such as Albert Grünwedel and Walter Eugene Clark. The latter included it in his index of four collections of Tibetan Buddhist deity images, published in 1937. In 1943 the Rev. Friedrich A. Peter published an account of a set of the blockprints he had acquired from a lama in Ladakh. In 1963-4 and on other occasions, Lokesh Chandra has reproduced a complete set he originally claimed was purchased by his father, Raghu Vira, from a monk in Ulan Bator in 1956. In this way the blockprints have become quite widely known in the West.

Unfortunately, the name under which the xylographs are best known is entirely misleading. Pander somehow got the mistaken idea that they were produced at Narthang Monastery in Tibet, and by the time Clark’s index appeared they were being called the ‘Five Hundred Gods of Narthang’. This is a double error. Not only do they originate from Mongolia rather than Narthang, but though there are about five hundred images, many of the images depict more than one deity and many of the deities are not gods but goddesses. It is time to reinstate the authentic Tibetan title of the blockprint set, ‘Icons Worthwhile to See’.

The images of Icons Worthwhile to See are shown in this exhibition not in their familiar blockprinted form. Instead, we present them as a unique and exquisitely beautiful set of miniature paintings, now in the collection of the Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich. Far sharper and more detailed than the blockprints, the paintings also have the advantage of being in full color.

Unquestionably, the greatest value of the present collection of the Icons Worthwhile to See lies in the fact that it is a painted version. Besides the figurative elements, coloration is known to be of decisive importance for the characterization and classification of a deity in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. The four-volume work to hand constitutes therefore an exceptional rarity in terms of both art history and religious studies. Firstly because, as already mentioned, it is the only known painted copy of the Icons Worthwhile to See; and in addition, on account of its artistic quality. Without doubt this already strikes a superficial observer, but only analysis of the details demonstrates with what precision the Zürich set is painted. We invite you to make your own investigation!

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Last update: 29.11.2002