I took advantage of the free Friday hours at the Rubin Museum to see the two excellent exhibits that are currently on the top floors. It was my first visit to the Rubin Museum, which is dedicated to art from the Himalayas.
I started with Remember That You Will Die: Death Across Cultures, examining the different images and objects of death in the Christian European and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of skeletons and creepy things made with bones on both sides, but the aesthetic and approach was definitely different. For the Buddhists, skeletons usually represented deities safeguarding charnel grounds; for the Christians skeletons were ominous reminders of mortality. In Buddhism, death is a chance to achieve enlightenment; in Christianity, death is a judgment, with the promise of paradise or eternal torture of hell as sentences. Especially interesting are the different topographies of the afterlife, with the Buddhist “Wheel of Existence” focused on rebirth in an endless cycle and the Christian heaven and hell linearly connected with purgatory and earth sandwiched between. I started with the Buddhist side of the exhibit, where I was really intrigued by the Tibetan Skull Cups. They’re what they sound like: cups made from the top of a human skull. A lot of the wrathful deities are depicted grasping them in their hands. On the Christian side, I was really drawn to this ivory memento mori, with a head split between skin and skeleton. I also would love to posses this skull pocket watch.
On the next floor was Bardo: Tibetan Art of the Afterlife. The art was based around the Bardo Thodrol, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It had really detailed depictions of the afterlife, as well as prancing wrathful deities with mouths thrown wide and serene Buddhas. It made for a nice continuation of some of the ideas that had been introduced in Remember That You Will Die. I loved the beautiful manuscripts with the elegant text.
I will have to keep an eye on new exhibits at the Rubin Museum, because these two really impressed me.