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Engaging Digital Tibet
spectacles or eye coverings
This is an image of the late 17th/early 18th century Tibetan visionary Terdag Lingpa as depicted in a fresco within the main temple of Mindroling monastery in Dranang valley of the Lhoka region, Central Tibet. This reproduction was published in a pamphlet form introduction and outline of Terdag Lingpa's collected works by the branch of Mindroling in Dehra Dun, India.
The painting is credited to his younger brother, the great scholar and artist Lochen Dharmashri. Unfortunately, the inscription on the original painting is obscured. The inscription in the reproduction says simply, "An image of the Terton painted by Lochen Dharmashri." Note the eyeglasses resting on Terdag Lingpa's forehead. While it is not impossible that Terdag Lingpa had and wore spectacles, the presence of these eyeglasses is unusual and striking as compared with other portraits from the same historical context. Given the rarity of eyeglasses in Tibetan portraits, these eyeglasses are curious.
The history of eyeglasses in the Western world extends back to the 13th Century.
Some thoughts on the history of eyeglasses in Europe.
There are many possible explanations for the presence of these eyeglasses. Did Terdag Lingpa wear them to aid his vision, as eyeglasses are conventionally worn? Are they not eyeglasses as we know them, but a ritual implement used in meditative exercises or to enhance visionary experiences? Are they a novelty or luxury item that the artist chose to include because they highlighted Terdga Lingpa's elevated status? Were eyeglasses available or even common in Terdag Lingpa's time, but not typically depicted in images of lamas -- the most frequent subjects of portraits -- perhaps since eyeglasses would be a sign of poor vision and therefore not flattering to the lama's image?
There are other images of lamas wearing eye coverings of one variety or another.
Here are some examples of eye coverings in depictions of Kagyu and Sakya lamas.
These images, compiled by Jeff Watt in response to my query about eye coverings in Himalayan art, depict lamas identified as part of the Karma Kagyu, Drukpa Kagyu and Sakya lineages. The paintings and sculpture are approximately dated from 1500-1799. These images might indeed be of the same category as the eyeglasses in Lochen Dharmashri's portrait of Terdag Lingpa, but they are markedly different in appearance. Terdag Lingpa's resemble modern day eyeglasses far more than any of these other images. This makes me wonder whether the eyeglasses depicted in the Mindroling portrait might have been a gift from a foreign guest or patron, or a pilgrim who had traveled abroad and who delivered them to Terdag Lingpa.
According to China historian Milton Walter Meyer, eyeglasses were imported to China from Europe through Southeast Asia as early as the Tang. Meyer claims the by late Imperial times, spectacles were a common accoutrement of the literati. At certain points, eyeglasses were also a sign of prestige in Europe. It is possible that Terdag Lingpa's eyeglasses came from China, and the fact that Lochen Dharmashri chose to include them in the portrait might suggest that they were a mark of prestige in the Tibetan context as well.
Illardi, Vincent. 2006
Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes
. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.
-- "Eyeglasses and Concave Lenses in Fifteenth-Century Florence and Milan,"
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-- "Renaissance Florence: The Optical Capital of the World"
Journal of European Economic History
22 (1993), 507-41.
Lindberg, David C. "Lenses and Eyeglasses"
Dictionary of the Middle Ages
Meyer, Milton W. 1997.
Asia: a concise history
. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Rosen, Edward. "The Invention of Eyeglasses,"
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
, 11 (1956), 13-46, 183-218.
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