"Our first encounter with these Tibetan medical paintings is filled with delight, wonder, and pleasure. Their boisterous colors, their exquisite detail, their marvelous array of subject matter, the often playful and energetic figures that people them - all these perceptions strike us at once. We are drawn to the paintings instantly but at the same time are beset with questions." - Janet Gyatso, from the Introduction
The first full set of Tibetan medical paintings, or medical tangkas, were painted between 1687 and 1703 and were inspired by Sangye Gyatso, Regent of the Fifth Dalai Lama, who was a great patron of medical learning. In a beautiful and unique artistic style, the paintings illustrate Tibetan medical knowledge that drew on medical traditions from India, ancient Greece, Persia, pre-Buddhist Tibet, and China, while remaining firmly rooted in Buddhism. Copies of the iconic images have been created in meticulous detail through the centuries and Body and Spirit focuses on a set of contemporary paintings in the traditional technique by the Nepalese artist Romio Shrestha and his assistants in Kathmandu.
The tangkas illuminate human anatomy and the causes and effects of illness, as well as their diagnosis and treatment. Most of the paintings consist of rows of small human figures, animals, plants, minerals, houses, landscapes, and demons and deities, depicting the rich complexity of human endeavor: farming, animal husbandry, personal hygiene, marriage, sex, birthing, fighting, sleeping, studying, and meditating. The thousands of small and large images were designed to add visual form to the technical information: an eye-pleasing teaching aid for medical students.
Laila Williamson is senior scientific assistant and Serinity Young is a research associate, both in the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History. Janet Gyatso is Hershey Professor of Buddhist studies at The Harvard Divinity School.