‘Protecting Wisdom’ Features Tibetan, Buddhist Book Covers

The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) announces its exhibition, Protecting Wisdom: Tibetan Book Covers from the MacLean Collection, presenting 35 finely-crafted book covers dating from the eleventh to eighteenth century that showcase the array of decoration typical of these sacred items.

Protecting Wisdom is the first museum exhibition in the United States devoted to Tibetan book covers. It illuminates a type of art that, though virtually unknown, will charm and intrigue visitors both familiar and unfamiliar with Tibetan art.

“Before becoming the objects of art, the covers’ purpose was protecting book pages and the religious teachings that these pages held,” says Natsu Oyobe, UMMA’s Curator of Asian Art. “People can imagine the great importance of the book pages once existed.”

To honor the Buddha, as well as to accrue good merit towards a future rebirth, elaborate book covers were frequently commissioned, most commonly made from carved, painted, and often gilded wood. Works of handheld relief sculpture, Tibetan book covers were lavish productions that reflect the intense devotion with which Tibetans regard books.  

“People can compare the religious images here with those in other religious art forms, such as miniature manuscripts in medieval Europe,” Oyobe says. “You see the similar way of showing reverence.”

Tibetan book cover design has a history of more than a thousand years, during which stylistic influences from Kashmir, India, Nepal, Central Asia, and China were fused into a uniquely Tibetan creation. In turn, Tibetan innovations such as the covers’ large size—they are often more than two feet long and a foot wide—and amount of embellishment later influenced the covers of Mongolian and Chinese books.

“In China, during the Cultural Revolution, some of these works were used as cutting boards; you can see slicing marks on several works in the exhibition,” Oyobe says. “Later these were reevaluated as works of art.”

A highlight of the exhibition is a superbly carved and painted book cover from the early 1290s.

ImageShakyamuni, outer face, upper book cover, vol. 1, Tibet,14th–15th century, wood with traces of paint and gilding, MacLean Collection

Upcoming Exhibition Programs

Handheld Sculpture: An Introduction to Tibetan Book Covers
Sunday, Jan. 29 – 3–4:30 p.m.