Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Carved Tibetan book covers

       A wee while ago, Bodleian received a sutra text cover as a gift from Mr. Colin & Mrs. Charlotte Franklin, for which many thanks to them.
       The 'cover' for the text was a pair of boards, top and bottom. The top board, presented to Bodleian, is decorated with woodcarving:

Text cover woodcarving donated by Colin and Charlotte Franklin.

       The central detail of the carved panel is the seated figure of a Buddha in meditation mudra, cum halo...

(left-click once to enlarge the photo)
          To either side  is what seemed at first to me to be a peacock, but since receiving the points made separately by Dan Martin and Amy Heller - see below in the 'comments' section - I accept that it is most probably a haṃsa goose.

       In earlier times, I was a professional woodcarver, working in European styles of carving (including work done in House of Lords, St Paul's, Westminster Abbey, Oberammergau, etc). However, I have no expertise in this style of carving, so any observations by readers of this posting would be welcome in the comments feature below.

       Meanwhile, this gift put me in mind of other wooden text covers which Bodleian has, and which seemed to have been almost forgotten in the depths of what used to be J floor in New Bodleian. Most of the covers are more or less plain wooden panels, but two of greater interest are shown below, one of which also has extensive woodcarving on it:

Bodleian Tibetan book covers
left side detail of topmost cover above

centre detail
right side detail
           I would welcome any expert observations or suggestions re the artistic style and possible dating of the boards, in the comments feature just below this.

           And thanks again to Colin & Charlotte Franklin for the gift.


update Summer 2014 -
2 further donations of sutra covers from Colin & Charlotte Franklin:

with thanks to the donors.


  1. I think the 'peacock' (?) of your first example is to be identically identified (even if not 100% identical) to the bird at Buddha's shoulder level in the last-given photo. It has to be a hamsa or goose.* It's rather rare to find the hamsa in this position among the 'throne animals' (rather than the usual makara sea creature), although it does happen, and seems to continue to occur (I have a note of it happening in a 14th-15th century painting).

    I can see why it could seem peacock-like, especially the tail that looks like it could be fanned out peacock-style, but I still think it's the hamsa.

    *I know there are those who believe it's important to translate hamsa inaccurately as swan, just because of the romantic associations the swan evokes.

  2. From Amy Heller:

    There is a new publication on Tibetan bookcovers, either just printed or in press, by Kathryn Selig-Brown, in USA, based on a private Chicago collection, with a very good essay.
    Look for this, I think you will find it worthwhile.

    best wishes,
    Amy Heller

  3. Also from Amy Heller:

    May I agree 100% with Dan's remark - This bird, in my opinion, is definitely the hamsa/goose, with the tail feathers splayed. The peacock would have additional crest feathers on the head, the neck corresponds much more to the proportions of the goose neck.

    As for the date I must think more about this -- any letters on the edges of the covers? that can be helpful too.

    Bye for now,
    Amy Heller

  4. Some other examples of Tibetan bookcovers:

    Now kept in New York:


    And again, at Art Institute of Chicago website:

    And of course also at Oxford, in the Ashmolean:

    And San Francisco...
    with details:
    and the 'bottom' or 'back' cover:

    And a listing of covers, with prices (click on the numerical links on the ensuing website to see the photos):