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Deities and Devotion in Mongolian Buddhist Art

Kruizenga Art Museum
Hope College
Holland, Michigan
August 30 – December 14, 2019

all text & images © and The Asian Art Museum except as where otherwise noted


Tantric Buddhism—also called Vajrayana Buddhism—is a form of Buddhism that uses sacred incantations, secret gestures, sophisticated meditation and visualization techniques, and complex devotional rituals to help adherents progress toward a state of spiritual enlightenment. Many tantric worship practices are directed toward specific deities that embody either positive qualities the practitioners are trying to cultivate (for example, wisdom, compassion, and loving kindness), or negative qualities they are trying to eliminate (for example, anger, jealousy, and greed) within themselves.

Deities to whom these personalized worship practices are directed are called yidam, a term that is often translated into English as “meditational deity.” Most deities in the Tantric Buddhist pantheon can function as meditational deities, in addition to their other roles as protectors, benefactors, healers and teachers. A tantric practitioner’s engagement with a meditational deity is intimate and often very intense. The ultimate goal of meditational deity worship is to meld the practitioner’s mind with the enlightened mind of the deity so as to gain insight into the true nature of reality. Such engagement requires great commitment and is traditionally undertaken only with guidance and instruction from a qualified teacher.

Art plays an important role in Tantric Buddhist practice, helping adherents to imagine the deities they are invoking and providing them with a material way of connecting to those deities. Works of art are also used to teach key aspects of Tantric Buddhist doctrine and history, and can sometimes function further as talismans to provide protection or bring good fortune to their owners.   

Tantric Buddhism has been the dominant form of Buddhism in Mongolia since the 16th century and all of the artworks featured in this exhibition reflect the Mongolian Tantric Buddhist tradition. Most of the artworks displayed here date from the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Tantric Buddhist culture was at its highest point in Mongolia. Many of the paintings, sculptures and other objects illustrated and discussed here were used in devotional rituals—including meditational deity rituals—by both ordained clerics and lay believers. The artworks are grouped according to the traditional schemes for classifying different types of deities and other religious subjects.

Deities and Devotion in Mongolian Buddhist Art was organized by the staff of the Kruizenga Art Museum. The museum is immensely grateful to David Kamansky and Gerald Wheaton for donating and lending most of the artworks featured in the exhibition. The museum also thanks Dr. Ronald ’62 and Gerri Vander Molen, who donated funds to purchase additional artworks for the exhibition; Garrett Fixx ‘20, the museum’s spring 2019 John H. Dryfhout ’64 Intern who helped design the exhibition and prepare the artworks for display; and Tom Wagner ’84, who designed and produced the accompanying exhibition catalog.

Charles Mason, Director
Kruizenga Art Museum
Hope College,
Holland, Michigan

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