This exhibition explores the many celestial realms represented in Tibetan Buddhist painting and sculpture through exquisite examples from the twelfth to nineteenth centuries. The historic Buddha, a fully realized and enlightened being, occupies the highest realm of existence, and his central image presides over the gallery in a robust, monumental gilt bronze sculpture. The Buddha’s life story is recounted in painting in a masterful thangka from the twelfth century that details his progression from a naïve young prince to an enlightened being.
Circular, multilayered supernatural realms populated with deities, saints, and prophets who serve as guides through the cosmos are vividly depicted in multiple art forms. The painting The Deities of the Bardo presents demonic figures with flaming red hair and gruesome expressions who occupy the nebulous regions of the world of the recently dead as they transition into their next karmic incarnation. In other works, protector deities play an important role in guiding practitioners through various realms of the universe and often appear as fearsome characters with gaping mouths and fierce expressions intended to inspire rather than frighten. Two brilliant red and gold mandalas—one a thangka from the fourteenth century and the other from the sixteenth century—depict the celestial palace of the fierce meditational deity Hevajra. Mandalas serve as maps to visualize, and with them the practitioner could enter into the presence of this deity.
Serene deities such as Tara (the Divine Woman) and Maitreya (the Buddha of the Future) are depicted as gentle figures with sweet countenances that project the meditative compassion of their roles as guides to their realms of existence.