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Body and Spirit: Tibetan Medical Paintings Opens at the Museum

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The Tree of Diagnosis is one of 64 pieces in the new exhibition Body and Spirit: Tibetan Medical Paintings. Photo: ©AMNH.


Just as Western medical historians prize classic texts, whether Henry Gray’s 1858 Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical or Walter B. Cannon’s 1932 The Wisdom of the Body, students of Tibetan medicine value scroll paintings that illustrate traditional medical knowledge and procedures. Sixty-four modern copies of such medical paintings from the Museum’s collection are the subject of a new special exhibition, Body and Spirit: Tibetan Medical Paintings, which opens Tuesday, January 25 in the Audubon Gallery on the Museum’s fourth floor. Curated by Laila Williamson, senior scientific assistant in the Division of Anthropology, with host curator Laurel Kendall, chair of the division, the exhibition will run through July 17.

In the 17th century, a series of paintings was commissioned for use as teaching aids in a medical school founded in Lhasa, Tibet, by Sangye Gyatso, regent to the Fifth Dalai Lama and author of the Blue Beryl, an important commentary on the classic Tibetan medical text Four Tantras. The fate of the original paintings, which were created between 1687 and 1703, is unknown. But in the late 1990s, Romio Shrestha, a Nepalese artist, and his students reproduced 79 paintings, painstakingly rendering their intricate details in vegetable and mineral dyes on canvas. These Tibetan Medical Paintings, acquired and conserved with the support of Emily H. Fisher and John Alexander and exhibited with the support of a generous gift from the Estate of Marian O. Naumburg, are believed to be among only a handful in existence, providing a unique and rich history of medicine in Tibet.

Among the paintings on display in the exhibition are depictions of human anatomy; the process of human development from conception to birth; 302 points of the body vulnerable to injury; and the origin of dreams and how they bring the sleeper to either the beautiful realm of the gods or the ugly realm of tormented spirits. A “tree of diagnosis” conveys how a doctor makes a diagnosis and treats diseases by observing, touching, and questioning the patient. Other paintings illustrate various Tibetan medical implements, therapies, and remedies — one of them, an elixir of many ingredients, including honey, yak butter, garlic, and flowers, that works through the healing power of the Buddha to give the patient “the body of a 16-year-old with the prowess of a lion, strength of an elephant, complexion of a peacock, speed of a trained horse, and the life span of the Sun and Moon.”

From Tuesday, January 25 through Sunday, January 30, the Museum also presents a special Global Weekends: Brain and the Tibetan Creative Mind, a six-day festival of programming celebrating Tibetan culture that invites audience members to participate in meditation, learn monastic dances, experience the making of a sand mandala, and more. Click here to learn more about the schedule of events.

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