Tibetan buddhist Temple
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Tibetan Buddhist Art furniture & Antiques from the monasteries of the Ser Shong (Golden Valley)
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Furniture and Art History

History of Art and Furniture at Sange Monasteries*

early 16th century Tibetan Buddhist altar table

Furniture is only noted in monasteries or temples according to western accounts by early visitors to Tibet. William Rockhill, (citation) makes the observation that it did not matter the affluence of the person, there was only furniture in monasteries and temples. Furniture in the monasteries was either an offering cabinet or an altar, with the lone exception of small tables that were used by lamas as reading desks, the tops sized perfectly for reading of a Tibetan manuscript. The earliest art on furniture from Sange is primarily composed of solid one elemental colored backgrounds on the panels, with raised gesso, called Kyungbur in Tibetan, used to outline designs, and then the designs were painted gold. These early designs show influence from both Chinese silk brocade as shown above on the blue panels with the Taoist longevity symbol and from India in the cabinet side below with a variation of Vishnu’s chakra. The most common top border, in later furniture, is the ‘T’ wave or rolling thunder design. The doors vary with Buddhist iconography; Chakravartin’s Precious Elephant or Horse, snowlions, narrative scenes such as the 4 compatible brothers or pastoral scenes with yaks, sheep or deer. Kyungbur is noted on every altar or offering cabinet dating back to circa 1400 AD, with the exception of some painted by one particular great artist and his crew during the 1800s. The kyungbur on the extant pieces from this early period is very small in diameter, about the width of a sharp pencil. There is kyungbur on the frames with variations in the patterns used. The temple altar pictured above, has Dorjes and pearls on a flat surfaced frame. Other slightly later pieces displayed variations of a flattened ‘V’, some with border fluting and others with rounded shoulders. The painting is done on cloth that is glued to the doors or panels and then prepared in the same manner as tangkas, with the kaolin clay spread, dried and sanded smooth. This is probably the main reason that these paintings on furniture have lasted so long.

Structurally the cabinets have not changed much through out the centuries. The basic joinery is mortise and tendon on the frame, using the tendon on the horizontal rails and the mortise on the verticals. The mortise was generally a through mortise and the tendon would be cut so the outside of the join was flush. The tops were generally joined to the frame with use of bamboo pegs. The bamboo pegs were inserted into a hole drilled through the top into the frame and then the bamboo peg was inserted and cut flush with the top.

The doors have a peg in the top and bottom that provides the pivot point for opening and closing. In the frame there are provisions to accept these pivot pegs: the top peg on the door inserts into a hole drilled into the underside of the top of the frame; the lower peg on the door slides into a tapered slot on the bottom portion of the door opening frame. This slot tapers from the center of the door opening, reaching the full depth at a place directly below the upper peg's drilled hole. Thus the door would be inserted with the door totally open or perpendicular to the cabinet, the upper peg partially inserted and the bottom tilted toward the center of the opening, then as the bottom is moved toward the final stop in the slot, the upper peg is allowed to fully insert into position. The doors generally had a door pull that matched the frame in appearance and the pull, the vertical board, usually on the right hand door was “V'ed” at the top and bottom. Early cabinets, regardless of the size generally had a minimum of two doors. The back side of the door had one or two braces that were place at a 90 degree angle, to the direction of the boards joined together to make the door. Many of these cross braces were dovetailed into the back side; generally all were also pegged into the door. On a few pieces there were no door pulls, and one had to push on the front of the door at the edge just behind the pivot point.

Drawers first started to appear in the 1500s. The pulls were wood, carved in the shape of an eye with a recess at the bottom. These early pulls were gild in gold, giving the appearance of metal pulls. The kyungbur and painted design on the doors was scrolling durva grass that complimented the pulls, incorporating them into the artistic design. All of the drawers had dovetail joinery, joining the sides of the drawers to the front panel. Just a note on the dovetailing: this technique was used in building the temples and larger buildings when cross members were not long enough to pan the entire distance in one piece. Metal pulls started to show up in the mid 1600s. They initially were well planned into the artistic design of the drawers, consisting of a thin strip of metal that was bent in half with the center, at the bend, making a loop. This was then inserted into a hole in the drawer, with a bronze or brass Chinese coin acting as the escutcheon, the cut ends of the thin metal were bent back against the inside of the drawer making them stable pulls. Through the exposed loop a piece of leather was attached that acted as the actual pull. During the 19th and 20th centuries, some of these drawer pulls were factory made out of brass, with brass rings as the pull. These factory made drawer pulls were seen on cabinets painted by very accomplished work groups, the art work being extremely good.

All the extant larger cabinets (altars) had a breakfront, the board that stretches underneath the frame from leg to leg until the 18th century. The smaller cabinets of this period with non moving panels under and sometimes over the doors were painted on the front doors, and two sides. There are also some smaller altars with out the front panels that are painted on all four sides. The accessibility to the interior items becomes difficult with the panels; the purpose of the panels was structural. The design of the door pulls and hinging makes use of the panels almost mandatory. These items were most exclusively used by the monasteries and in particular the Lamas and Geshes. When a Lama would die his possessions would be sold or some times handed down to a favored disciple.

Tibetan Buddhist furniture from Wutun or Wutong monasteries circa 1550 AD with Hindu icons
Tibet furniture from Wutun or Wutong AKA Sange monastery in Amdo

Vishnu’s chakra & stylized durva grass

Mongoose and Cintamani on altar front with
gold gilded drawer pulls, circa mid-late 1500s

The rounded fronts on the smaller altar table frames lasted until the end of the 18th century when the ‘T’ wave and the zig-zag kyungbur started to dominate the designs. There is very little carving on the altars painted at Sange Monasteries. The Rolling thunder or ‘T’ wave was carved in until the middle of the 19th century, then was replaced by pre-cut ‘T’ waves. What little other carving done was usually on the top of the frame just under the top’s overhang. One of the early 18th century small altar tables does have some carving other than the ‘T” wave, it appears to be the typical rendition of Kusha grass on a table that has the drawers over the doors and one of a kind drawer pulls.

Tibetan Furniture with snowlion painted on front Tibetan Furniture a Buddhist altar from Amdo in Tibet with a Dharma Wheel in gold gild

Carved kusha grass under the top overhang on this early 18th
century altar table. Unusual drawers over the doors. The ‘V’
design on this and other cabinets prior to the late 18th century
gave way to the multi-layered zigzag in later tables and cabinets.

Art History of the Lion Valley
Tibetan buddhist Temple
baronet 4 tibet
Tibetan Buddhist Art furniture & Antiques from the monasteries of the Ser Shong (Golden Valley)
comodo security
Furniture and Art History
BBB on line reliablility seal

History of Art and Furniture at Sange Monasteries*

early 16th century Tibetan Buddhist altar table

Furniture is only noted in monasteries or temples according to western accounts by early visitors to Tibet. William Rockhill, (citation) makes the observation that it did not matter the affluence of the person, there was only furniture in monasteries and temples. Furniture in the monasteries was either an offering cabinet or an altar, with the lone exception of small tables that were used by lamas as reading desks, the tops sized perfectly for reading of a Tibetan manuscript. The earliest art on furniture from Sange is primarily composed of solid one elemental colored backgrounds on the panels, with raised gesso, called Kyungbur in Tibetan, used to outline designs, and then the designs were painted gold. These early designs show influence from both Chinese silk brocade as shown above on the blue panels with the Taoist longevity symbol and from India in the cabinet side below with a variation of Vishnu’s chakra. The most common top border, in later furniture, is the ‘T’ wave or rolling thunder design. The doors vary with Buddhist iconography; Chakravartin’s Precious Elephant or Horse, snowlions, narrative scenes such as the 4 compatible brothers or pastoral scenes with yaks, sheep or deer. Kyungbur is noted on every altar or offering cabinet dating back to circa 1400 AD, with the exception of some painted by one particular great artist and his crew during the 1800s. The kyungbur on the extant pieces from this early period is very small in diameter, about the width of a sharp pencil. There is kyungbur on the frames with variations in the patterns used. The temple altar pictured above, has Dorjes and pearls on a flat surfaced frame. Other slightly later pieces displayed variations of a flattened ‘V’, some with border fluting and others with rounded shoulders. The painting is done on cloth that is glued to the doors or panels and then prepared in the same manner as tangkas, with the kaolin clay spread, dried and sanded smooth. This is probably the main reason that these paintings on furniture have lasted so long.

Structurally the cabinets have not changed much through out the centuries. The basic joinery is mortise and tendon on the frame, using the tendon on the horizontal rails and the mortise on the verticals. The mortise was generally a through mortise and the tendon would be cut so the outside of the join was flush. The tops were generally joined to the frame with use of bamboo pegs. The bamboo pegs were inserted into a hole drilled through the top into the frame and then the bamboo peg was inserted and cut flush with the top.

The doors have a peg in the top and bottom that provides the pivot point for opening and closing. In the frame there are provisions to accept these pivot pegs: the top peg on the door inserts into a hole drilled into the underside of the top of the frame; the lower peg on the door slides into a tapered slot on the bottom portion of the door opening frame. This slot tapers from the center of the door opening, reaching the full depth at a place directly below the upper peg's drilled hole. Thus the door would be inserted with the door totally open or perpendicular to the cabinet, the upper peg partially inserted and the bottom tilted toward the center of the opening, then as the bottom is moved toward the final stop in the slot, the upper peg is allowed to fully insert into position. The doors generally had a door pull that matched the frame in appearance and the pull, the vertical board, usually on the right hand door was “V'ed” at the top and bottom. Early cabinets, regardless of the size generally had a minimum of two doors. The back side of the door had one or two braces that were place at a 90 degree angle, to the direction of the boards joined together to make the door. Many of these cross braces were dovetailed into the back side; generally all were also pegged into the door. On a few pieces there were no door pulls, and one had to push on the front of the door at the edge just behind the pivot point.

Drawers first started to appear in the 1500s. The pulls were wood, carved in the shape of an eye with a recess at the bottom. These early pulls were gild in gold, giving the appearance of metal pulls. The kyungbur and painted design on the doors was scrolling durva grass that complimented the pulls, incorporating them into the artistic design. All of the drawers had dovetail joinery, joining the sides of the drawers to the front panel. Just a note on the dovetailing: this technique was used in building the temples and larger buildings when cross members were not long enough to pan the entire distance in one piece. Metal pulls started to show up in the mid 1600s. They initially were well planned into the artistic design of the drawers, consisting of a thin strip of metal that was bent in half with the center, at the bend, making a loop. This was then inserted into a hole in the drawer, with a bronze or brass Chinese coin acting as the escutcheon, the cut ends of the thin metal were bent back against the inside of the drawer making them stable pulls. Through the exposed loop a piece of leather was attached that acted as the actual pull. During the 19th and 20th centuries, some of these drawer pulls were factory made out of brass, with brass rings as the pull. These factory made drawer pulls were seen on cabinets painted by very accomplished work groups, the art work being extremely good.

All the extant larger cabinets (altars) had a breakfront, the board that stretches underneath the frame from leg to leg until the 18th century. The smaller cabinets of this period with non moving panels under and sometimes over the doors were painted on the front doors, and two sides. There are also some smaller altars with out the front panels that are painted on all four sides. The accessibility to the interior items becomes difficult with the panels; the purpose of the panels was structural. The design of the door pulls and hinging makes use of the panels almost mandatory. These items were most exclusively used by the monasteries and in particular the Lamas and Geshes. When a Lama would die his possessions would be sold or some times handed down to a favored disciple.

Tibetan Buddhist furniture from Wutun or Wutong monasteries circa 1550 AD with Hindu icons
Tibet furniture from Wutun or Wutong AKA Sange monastery in Amdo

Vishnu’s chakra & stylized durva grass

Mongoose and Cintamani on altar front with
gold gilded drawer pulls, circa mid-late 1500s

The rounded fronts on the smaller altar table frames lasted until the end of the 18th century when the ‘T’ wave and the zig-zag kyungbur started to dominate the designs. There is very little carving on the altars painted at Sange Monasteries. The Rolling thunder or ‘T’ wave was carved in until the middle of the 19th century, then was replaced by pre-cut ‘T’ waves. What little other carving done was usually on the top of the frame just under the top’s overhang. One of the early 18th century small altar tables does have some carving other than the ‘T” wave, it appears to be the typical rendition of Kusha grass on a table that has the drawers over the doors and one of a kind drawer pulls.

Tibetan Furniture with snowlion painted on front Tibetan Furniture a Buddhist altar from Amdo in Tibet with a Dharma Wheel in gold gild

Carved kusha grass under the top overhang on this early 18th
century altar table. Unusual drawers over the doors. The ‘V’
design on this and other cabinets prior to the late 18th century
gave way to the multi-layered zigzag in later tables and cabinets.

Side view with unknown design on the lower panel:
probably a torma design or possibly a very stylized
shou and torma combination. Dharma wheel on the
upper panel.

We were unable to find a cabinet maker in the valley, although we were informed that there is indeed a pair of brothers in the valley whose family has been making furniture for several generations. Detailed carvings seem to be used solely on headers for entrance doors and some of the interior in the temples. The main emphasis in the valley always has been painting with liberal use of the kyungbur, the raised gesso style of outlining. The early examples of the kyungbur are very fine lines and only to out line designs and not used for use with complex icons or scenes. There usually is a heavier lobe present when directions were changed. During the 19th and 20th centuries there is some evidence that the kyungbur thickness and direction was varied and incorporated into the design elements, especially when drawing leaves.

*

This history is just of the furniture and art created at the Sange Monasteries. We are in the process of translating a 180 page unpublished manuscript written by Gedun Chok Drub that will provide more information. The history contained on this page is compiled from David Huber's observations of Baronet's comprehensive collection of art from the Lion Valley (Sange Shong) and from interviews with the monks, lamas, geshes, and village historians of Sange, Nyantok, and Ghomar. All of the items used in this observation have been verified as originating from the Sange Monasteries by several third parties, including Professor Baima Wangjie of the University of the West in Rosemead, CA and several monks and lamas at the upper and lower Sange Monasteries. The dating of items has been supplied by the Wakaito laboratory in New Zealand and by several monks at the Sange monasteries. While one can never be 100% certain of the dates of antiquities we are confident of the date ranges supplied, with an 75% probability of the items that date prior to 1850. The items between 1850 and 1972 we have a 99% confidence in the date ranges.

David Huber

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