Thangka, Artist Unknown,  Watercolor on cotton, Collection of Jack Shear 

Tibetan cosmograms may be designed for instruction, meditation, divination, or protection. Painted on fabric and called thangkas, these colorful, elaborate diagrams promote Buddhist teachings and practices. Some thangkas encode Buddhist understandings of existence as a cycle of suffering, whereas others map the universe. In Tibetan art, flat, two-dimensional planes can represent three- or four-dimensional realities. The thangka located in the center shows an aerial view of a celestial palace, through which one travels mentally. This kind of circular composition, called a mandala, allows viewers to transcend the chaos of sense perception and visualize a perfectly ordered world. Thus mandalas are far more than intricate patterns; they are meditation devices, used to navigate beyond mundane experience and reach enlightenment.

Two of the works presented here are visual expressions of Tibetan astrology, which synthesizes Indian and Chinese traditions. These cosmograms are not spatially oriented, as they order time by tracking the movement of heavenly bodies. Annual cycles coordinate with the five elements and the twelve signs of the zodiac, influencing the human form and impacting a person’s fate. One astrological chart presents a functional calendar, employed for calculating natal horoscopes. The other chart was commissioned to protect a specific, well-placed person, by counteracting negative astral influences and invoking protective deities. Powerful verbal formulas, known as mantras, are written in circles as they need to be repeated.

Gregory Spinner

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