Thangka (Tibetan hanging)

Maker unknown
Tibetan, 18th century
Painted cotton and silk brocade

Our Object of the Month for May is this Tibetan Buddhist thangka - a painted cloth and silk brocade hanging depicting a Buddhist deity. Ready for our reopening on Sunday May 23rd, a new display mount has been installed in the Buddhist Room. It was custom made for the Castle’s thangka collection. This project, which was made possible through grants from The Leche Trust and the Daphne Bullard Trust, has given us a chance to display the thangka for visitors to enjoy once again. 

Thangka are a common type of Tibetan painting. They are made to be portable - they can be rolled up and transported, and hung on a wall or above an altar. They can be used for teaching, as a visual aid for meditation (the practice of focusing the mind to achieve a state of clarity and calm), or as an object of worship. They can be displayed in a temple or in the home. They usually depict a certain Buddhist deity or important figure surrounded by other associated deities or images. Most thangka are considered to be sacred - once they are completed, a ceremony is carried out which transforms the painted image into a physical representation of a Buddhist deity. The thangka is treated with respect as a sacred object as if it were a deity itself. 

Hall of zhargye nyenri monastery near Litang, with a thangka hanging on one of the pillars, taken 2009 by Antoine Taveneux

The main Buddhist deity depicted in our Object of the Month is Shadakshari Lokeshvara. He can be identified by his four arms, one of which is holding a flowering lotus. He is worshipped as a bodhisattva (enlightened being) of compassion, who can save living things from suffering. Unlike the Buddha, who is usually depicted in plain monk’s robes, bodhisattvas wear jewellery and fine scarves and clothes. This represents both their important and revered status, and the idea that although they have almost or already achieved enlightenment, they remain in the material world to help others do the same. The thangka depicts him in a ‘pure land’ paradise, surrounded by other Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and guardians. 

Shadakshari Lokeshvara, gilt-bronze, Tibet, 18th - 19th century, The National Gallery of Australia, accession no. NGA 91.1564

Denys Eyre Bower collected a number of thangkas to add to his Buddhist collection, and he used to display them in picture frames on the walls of the Castle. A conservator discovered a few years ago however that the thangkas had been taped into the picture frames, which were too small for them, using masking tape. This was causing damage, so we needed to create a new mounting method so that they could be displayed safely in the Buddhist Room again. 

Old photograph from the Castle archive of Denys’ Buddhist Room (which is now the Egyptian Room), thangkas can be seen in their frames on the walls. 

Karen Horton, a textile conservator specialising in thangkas, proposed a new display for the Buddhist Room which uses magnets to mount them to a fabric-covered board. This method does not require any stitching or intervention to the fabric of the thangka, and therefore does not cause any damage. If the thangkas were stitched to a mount board, it would no longer be possible to study their backs, which often include inscriptions, painted symbols, handprints left behind from the consecration ceremony, and different fabrics from India or China. 

The new display also reflects how the thangka would have looked hanging on a Tibetan temple wall. Using the new mount, we can rotate the thangkas which are in storage so that the rest of the collection can be seen once more. 

Deciding on the placement of the magnets

Installation of the thangka in the Buddhist Room by Karen Horton

This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

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