With the Rubin Museum of Art’s recent acquisition of a mid-18th-century manuscript known as White Beryl, the Manhattan museum now holds the world’s leading collection of Tibetan astrological and cosmological paintings.
“The universe at large and the place human beings occupy within it are some of the main concerns that are commonly addressed and explored in every culture,” Elena Pakhoutova, curator of Himalayan art, told Hyperallergic. “It happens that in Buddhist culture, and in Tibetan Buddhist culture in particular, relationships of human beings with the world and its interconnected and inner dimensions were carefully studied and developed into practical applications of knowledge that are still practiced today.”
She added that Tibetan astrology merges numerous traditions, initially compiled by the Regent to the Fifth Dalai Lama Desi Sangye Gyatso (1653–1705), including “ancient Tibetan tradition, Chinese elemental astrology, Indian astrological systems that incorporate elements of Western Astrological knowledge as well as the Buddhist Kalachakra tantra — the Wheel of Time — system.”
The systems were aimed at prognostication, or foretelling the future on questions of health, marriage, death horoscopes, and geomancy, as well as explaining the structure of the universe and how humans relate to its worlds and celestial movements. With its 94 vibrant paintings, White Beryl demonstrates the broader context for Tibetan divination, incorporating astrological knowledge from both Asia and Europe.
White Beryl might be familiar to Rubin visitors who attended the 2014 exhibition Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine, in which a few of the paintings were featured. Selections from it will go on view in February with the annual reinstallation of Masterworks: Jewels of the Collections, and there are plans for a more extensive exhibition in 2017. The new acquisition is the best illustrated example of this manuscript in the world and, like the Rubin’s wider exhibitions and collections, is meant to contribute to an examination of personal connections with Tibetan art. Although the paintings, scrolls, and charts featuring cosmological and astrological art are objects of divination, they also represent an interest in the mechanics of the universe and our place within greater existence.
“This knowledge incorporates a fundamental model of existence according to Buddhist cosmology and includes such grand notions as multiple worlds, universes coming into existence and passing into nothingness, as well as the more ‘mundane’ but profound idea of the interrelated nature of everything,” Pakhoutova explained. “Therefore, it has a possibility to affect conventional reality by manipulating certain aspects of it and being aware of limitations.”
Along with White Beryl‘s 94 paintings, the Rubin’s collection includes a nearly 16-foot astrological scroll, the Kalachakra tantra scroll, and examples of astrological and protective charts. Like White Beryl, which was commissioned by the Sakya court and lavishly painted by Sonam Peljor, each reflects the rich artistic traditions of Tibet, while representing a shared human interest in understanding and influencing our environment.
Selections from White Beryl go on view at the Rubin Museum of Art (150 West 17th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) in February 2016.