Within Tibetan Buddhism, Tara is a buddha and a divine mother. She takes many different forms to come to the aid of beings in need, and she can be peaceful or wrathful. Twenty-one Tara are described in a text called Twenty-One Praises of Tara, its verses inspiring the creation of the set to which the MFA’s three paintings once belonged. They are the only paintings from the set known to have survived. (Learn more about the paintings in this video with curator Laura Weinstein.) Donated to the MFA in 1906 by Denman Waldo Ross, they entered the collection without their original hanging scroll mounts. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Museum’s policy was to format Asian scroll paintings into panels for ease of display. This practice became known as the “Boston tradition” and was adopted by many other museums, including the Freer Art Gallery and the British Museum. Today, museums strive to preserve the integrity of original formats.
The first painting conservators will return to its thangka, or hanging scroll, format depicts a bejeweled goddess seated in a posture of royal ease. She carries a vase of sacred water in her right hand and a lotus stem in her left. At the bottom of the painting, dancing goddesses are shown presenting offerings to Tara. The inscription on this painting is the least damaged of the three, and it reads, “Homage to Holy Tara Removing Suffering!”
The second painting shows a brilliant white form of Tara in green, red, and white twisting robes. She raises her left hand, which gently holds the stem of a flower. Her right hand rests on her knee in the gesture of supreme generosity and holds a vase. Below her is an inscription in Tibetan which translates to “Homage to the holy mother of the three jewels.”
In the third painting, Tara appears with rich crimson-colored skin, seated in front of a spectacular circular mandorla and under a canopy surmounted by a jewel. The inscription on this painting is severely abraded, but with assistance from colleagues who specialize in Tibetan iconography and scriptures, conservators hope to solve the riddle of which Tara is being portrayed.
Over the next two years, the paintings will receive substantial attention from conservators, who will study the pigments used in their creation, stabilize damaged areas, and search for clues about how they were made and by whom. Deciphering the abraded inscriptions near the bottom of each painting will reveal which form of Tara is represented, and other inscriptions that may be found, such as color notations, can provide information about the artists and how they worked.
Color notations are usually found below the painted surface, serving as instructions for the artist completing a given area or image. The notations on the crimson-colored Tara, handwritten in the Tibetan Umê script, are now visible with the naked eye because the original pigment has been lost by abrasion or cleaving paint. It’s likely that the other two less damaged paintings also have color notations; they will be investigated using infrared reflectography, a technique that can reveal drawings on the ground layer hidden under paint. All the research underway aims to gather as much information as possible to inform the current conservation campaign that will return the paintings to an appropriate hanging scroll format.
To learn more about thangkas, visit Himalayan Art Resources, which features Himalayan and Tibetan art from across museum, university, and private collections.