In Tibetan-Buddhist practice, worship takes place not only in magnificent temples, but also in the homes of lay practitioners—many of which include a sacred space reserved for daily rituals. In 2004, the Philadelphia Museum of Art acquired a spectacular wooden Tibetan altar made for a private home and adorned with intricately carved niches and lively painted decoration that highlights domestic themes. During the past year, a team of conservators, technicians, and scientists studied and restored the altar, preparing it for display. The newly conserved altar will be on view in an exhibition that spotlights the Museum’s technical study of Tibetan furniture. Conserving a Tibetan Altar provides a remarkable behind-the-scenes glimpse into the Museum’s significant conservation and scientific research activities while divulging the rich cultural context of this remarkable sacred object. It is the first of two related altar exhibitions at the Museum. The second, titled Tibetan Ritual Arts will open in July 2007, presenting rarely seen Tibetan-Buddhist ritual paintings to illustrate the use of not only the Museum’s altar, but other types of Tibetan altars as well.
“We are delighted to display the beauty and power of this rarely viewed Tibetan-Buddhist decorative art, and to illustrate the intersection between our curatorial and conservation efforts,” Associate Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art Katherine Anne Paul said.
When the Museum acquired the altar, it arrived in 76 separate pieces. Because the altar was originally built into the walls of a home, it lacked structural support. Thus one of the most important conservation challenges was to examine patterns of soiling and the remaining wooden joinery to discover how to correctly reassemble the piece. To support the altar, a replacement framework was engineered using mortise-and-tenon joints. In keeping with the original construction method, no glue or screws were used to attach the new framework to the altar.
After the altar was assembled, the painted surfaces were cleaned of accretions, which wound up being the residue from countless burnt offerings of incense and butter-lamps. “To clean the altar’s surface, we had to determine the nature of the accretions, their cultural significance, and their chemical composition. The resulting scientific study informed the discussions and subsequent decision to remove the accretions and reveal the brilliant colors of the decoration, without damage to the altar’s painted surface,” Senior Scientist Beth Price said.
Conservators uncovered a rich variety of hues and designs that had been hidden previously. Now, viewers can more fully appreciate Tibetan-Buddhist aesthetics, the patrons’ intent, and the artisans’ skill. “To me, the effect is as dramatic as the cleaning of Michelangelo’s murals on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, allowing for new appreciation and understanding of the color preferences of earlier times,” said Paul.
In addition to the surface cleaning, much was discovered about Tibetan paint materials and technique through analysis using the Museum’s state-of-the-art scientific instruments. Scientists, curators and conservators encountered some surprising results: “Underneath the brilliant orange, blue, green, and red colored surfaces lies a hidden, monochromatic red paint layer composed of vermilion pigment, which may have had a consecratory purpose. Additionally, what appears to be gold is in fact brass and tin. Artisans coated the brass and tin with a mixture of such indigenous yellow colorants as turmeric and saffron to make them appear golden,” Price explained.
To better illuminate the ritual beauty of Tibetan devotional art, thirty-four small but powerful statues and ritual implements are also displayed with the altar. In addition, butter lamps, incense holders, musical instruments, ceramic fruit, and ornate textiles are placed in the altar, each respectively representing the five senses of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. The Museum’s website also offers an expanded overview of the altar—its conservation, cultural context, and imagery.
About the collection of Indian and Himalayan art
The Philadelphia Museum of Art contains one of the finest collections of South Asian art in the United States, including the spectacular Pillared Temple Hall (16th century) from Southern India, paintings and sculptures from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet; an important group of textiles; and a variety of decorative arts. Works from the Indian and Himalayan Art Collections are displayed in a series of galleries (224, 227, 229-232) located on the second floor. The William P. Wood Gallery houses changing installations of 16th- through 20th-century art from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Gallery 232 is devoted to works from Nepal and Tibet.