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Ulrich von Schroeder

Tibetan Gilt Copper Traditions

When Buddhism was introduced to the Tibetan court during the 7th century, this religion had already been practised in all surrounding countries for at least 500 years. According to legend, the first Buddhist images were brought to Tibet by the Chinese and Nepalese wives of King Songtsen Gampo. During the introduction of Buddhism the Tibetans depended in many aspects on foreign assistance. In addition to the missionaries and translators from India, Nepal, Central Asia, and China, there was also a need for skilled artists. At that time no Tibetan artists were available to produce the statues and paintings needed for daily practice. During the “first propagation” of Buddhism in Tibet, veteran artists from North-Western India and Newars from the Kathmandu Valley helped fill this gap. During the “second propagation” from the late 10th century onward, the influence of North-Eastern India prevailed. This was not only with regard to teachers and translators, but also with craftsmen. 

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Naturally, over the course of time more and more Tibetan artists acquired the necessary skills. The Indian and Nepalese artists from whom the Tibetans learned the crafts of casting Buddhist statues used two principal methods. The artists from Northern Indian and the Western Himalaya favoured brass, often inlaid with silver and copper (1–9). The Newar artists from the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal clearly preferred gilt copper (19–24). It is therefore appropriate to divide the Tibetan metal images accordingly: “Tibetan gilt copper traditions” (25–30) and “Tibetan brass traditions” (31–36).

    Tantric meditation practice aims to maintain a clear state of mind, to develop a positive energy and a creative synthesis in the union of opposites on a higher level. Couples in sexual union, illustrated here by two gilt copper sculptures, symbolically represent the union of male and female energy. One shows Rakta-Yamari united with Svabha-Prajna (25), the other Cakrasamvara united with Vajravarahi (27). The artists who created these masterpieces of such complexity in most cases remain anonymous. Nevertheless, Nepalese influence or active participation is to be expected. Illustrated also is an example of a wrathful female manifestation depicted as a Dakini or Yogini, a type of divinity that has its origin in pre-Buddhist female demons of cremation grounds (26).

    Depending on size and complexity, images could be cast in one piece or had to be assembled from several separately cast parts, as in the case of the illustrated Manjughosa (28). The beauty of statues could be increased with the setting of precious stones. The Nepalese used translucent stones like rubies, emeralds, and rock crystal. The Tibetans preferred turquoise in addition to coral, lapis lazuli, and amber.

    In all religious traditions, including Buddhism, teachers are of essential importance in preserving a particular tradition and handing it down from one generation to the next. This is also the case in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, were it became custom to create portrait sculptures of great teachers. The names of the two illustrated teachers are recorded by Tibetan inscriptions: The bearded portrait statue depicts Chos kyi rje grags pa ’byung gnas (29). However, he still needs to be identified with a known master. The other teacher is identified by the inscription as dKon mchog rgyal mtshan dpal bzang po, possibly identical with Könchog Gyaltsen (1388–1469), the 2nd abbot of Ngor (30). Naturally, it is somehow a paradox to create portrait statues of great masters who upheld a tradition directed towards the dissolution of the ego and believed in the impermanence of all manifestations.



25.  Rakta-Yamari. Tibetan gilt copper traditions: 12th century

       Gilt copper; hollow cast. Height: 19 cm

26.  Vajrayogini. Tibetan gilt copper traditions: 15th century

       Gilt copper; inset with turquoise. Height: 24 cm

27.  Cakrasamvara. Tibetan gilt copper traditions: 15th century

       Gilt copper; inset with turquoise. Height: 28.5 cm

28.  Manjugosha. Tibetan gilt copper traditions: 13th century

       Gilt copper; assembled from several parts. Height: 68 cm

29.  Chökyi Je Drakpa Jungne. Tibet: 16th/17th century

       Gilt copper; hollow cast. Height: 29.5 cm

30.  Könchog Gyaltsen (1388–1469). Tibet: 15th century

       Monk hollow cast in silver and parcel gilt. Height: 17 cm







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