Exploring The Art of Sacred Books

Tibetan Manuscript
The wooden cover of a 17th-century Tibetan book. Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

A sacred book may not always look like a book. It may, as the exhibit Illuminated: The Art of Sacred Books at New York’s Rubin Museum makes clear, actually come in a different form. For example, the Volume of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, a large Tibetan book dating from the 18th century, consists of rectangular unbound pages—each page, at 24 centimeters wide by 42 centimeters long, is made of multiple sheets of paper pasted together—stacked upon one another. Wooden tops and bottoms, more than half a meter long, serve like the bread holding together a sandwich; the top is carved and gilded. The dark-blue-edged pages have become misshapen with age, forming gentle waves that look like compressed, geologic layers of the earth. The whole tome weighs an estimated 36 kilograms. This Tibetan book would have been part of a monastery’s library, and stored in a slot in the wall near others like it, with pieces of fabric at its edge to mark the name of the volume. A light e-reader to peruse on the subway it is not.

This book, with pages stacked between wooden covers, takes a form called a pothi. The shape in general originates from books from South and Southeast Asia circa the first century B.C., when the pages were made of palm leaves, which were held together with string threaded through holes in the leaves. (The long, narrow palm leaves dictated the shape.) The Tibetans adopted the form in the eighth and ninth centuries, says Kurtis Schaeffer, a professor at the University of Virginia and expert in the history of the Tibetan book. “The formal features remained the same,” he explains of how the book evolved in Tibet, “but the materials changed drastically.”

The exhibit, on display until Sept. 3, aims to compare the materials, many of them precious, used in sacred books of different forms from Buddhist (with a focus on Tibetan examples), Hindu, Islamic, Jain, and Christian traditions. One Christian book on display is a 15th-century Gradual from the Netherlands. Its pages, made of parchment, are full of psalms and hymns, and the brightly colored page on display is decorated with gold and illustrated with images of red flowers, green stems, and birds. At the page’s bottom are images of people kneeling: these are representations of financial donors who helped make the book’s creation possible. Between the gold decorations and the animal skins needed for the parchment, patronage didn’t come cheaply. While its size makes it a striking object—when closed it’s 41 centimeters wide, 56 centimeters long, and 12 centimeters thick—its form fits the traditional idea of a book, with the pages bound at one edge, and a spine. That form is called a codex; it’s a book format that first came into being around the time of Christ. The first known codices survive from Coptic Egypt, and had pages made of papyrus, says Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor at Harvard University and an expert on the history of the book. The Gradual on display is a dramatic object, and yet its size had a purpose: it was intended to be big enough for the choir to see.

While the exhibit highlights the diversity of form that sacred books can take—from pothi to codex to scroll to a form called a concertina, which unfolds like an accordion—it also presents the similarities across cultures, in terms of the way materials like gold and silver were incorporated into the books themselves. These expensive materials served to make books into precious objects. One room of the exhibit highlights the aesthetic of gold script on indigo or a dark background, a look that different religions have chosen to utilize. A folio from the Blue Qur’an, which originates from 9th- to 10th-century Tunisia, has its elegant Kufic script written in gold on parchment that has been dyed with indigo. In one corner of the document, what looks like a circular stain is actually the remnants of oxidized silver. And in a case nearby is a Japanese scroll from 1720; called the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, it features gold script in neat columns on paper that has been dyed indigo blue.

But if gold on blue is a classic look, it also had a practical application, as exhibit co-curator Elena Pakhoutova points out. “It’s remarkable that they have similar aesthetics, and I think the reason for it is that the gold against the dark blue is the best possible high contrast value”—and is thus very visible—“and it’s also very beautiful.”

Ink and materials like gold can last a long time, but another kind of medium is less enduring: human blood. That’s the case with a 1931 Chinese sutra on display, where faded, light brownish-gray characters are written on white paper. But the stuff of life may be best kept inside the body. “The thing with human blood is that it’s very unstable and it fades very fast,” Pakhoutova says. This tradition has been mentioned in regard to Tibetan texts, too, in which blood was reportedly mixed with ink—and it’s not a sinister practice, as she explains. “On the part of the person who donated the blood,” she says, “it’s the expression of devotion, to acquire merit, and if this was the blood of a very famous master, it would also kind of consecrate the text,” making it more sacred.

Blue Qur’an A folio of the Blue Qur’an. Courtesy of Sotheby's London-Rubin Museum of Art

Some writing surfaces are meant to have the words they hold erased, and that’s the case with Tibetan writing boards, called samta, on display, which are akin to chalk on slate. The narrow boards have a slightly recessed black surface, which were lightly oiled and then coated with ash. Words could be scratched into the ash, similar to “writing in sand,” as Pakhoutova puts it. One of the uses of these writing boards could have been to send a message, and after it was received, the words could be wiped clean and then a fresh message could be sent back. The system, Pakhoutova says, is “like a text message.” Just slower.