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Sutra Cover

16th - early 17th century
Artist/maker unknown, Chinese

Buddhist scriptures, or sutras, that are bound accordion-style are often protected with covers composed of paperboard wrapped in decorative silk. Titles and volume numbers appear on strips of paper adhered to the fabric. The use of silk for sutra covers dates back to at least the Tang dynasty (618–907), but most extant examples are from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and later, when the printing industry grew in China. In some cases, sutra printings were sponsored by the imperial government, resulting in superior editions based on texts from the palace collection.

Complex weaves of lustrous silk, sometimes highlighted by metallic thread, made possible a wide array of patterns and motifs. These include floral scrolls, Buddhist emblems, traditional Chinese symbols of blessings, and Chinese characters with auspicious meanings, all of which are also found on Buddhist ritual vessels and implements made from lacquer, gold, silver, and porcelain.

In 1940 more than five hundred sutra covers, along with a significant assemblage of other textiles, were acquired from Carl Schuster, who served as assistant curator of Chinese art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1935 to 1937. Schuster’s collection is an important resource for the study of Chinese textiles.

Object Details

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