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We recently acquired a one-of-a-kind, illustrated, eighteenth-century manuscript painted by the famous artist Sonam Peljor. With this addition to the collection, the Rubin Museum now has the world’s foremost holdings of art related to Tibetan astrology and cosmology.

Created in Sakya, Tibet, this elaborate manuscript contains ninety-four exceptional illustrations of the Tibetan system of elemental divination known as the White Beryl astrological treatise. The intricate paintings in this White Beryl manuscript are especially significant, as no other fully illustrated version of the treatise exists.

Installation photograph of the White Beryl manuscript from Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine(on view at the Rubin Museum March 15
Installation photograph of the White Beryl manuscript from Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine (on view at the Rubin Museum March 15″“September 8, 2014) by David De Armas

Tibetan astrology and the White Beryl

The Tibetan astrological tradition is actually the accumulated knowledge of many different traditions, including ancient Tibetan tradition, Chinese elemental astrology, Indian astrological systems that incorporate elements of Western astrological knowledge, and the Buddhist Kalachakra (Wheel of Time) Tantra. All of these elements were compiled into one comprehensive system in the White Beryl treatise by the regent to both the Fifth and the Sixth Dalai Lamas, Desi Sangye Gyatso (1653″“1705).

These traditions were designed to offer prognostications ranging from geomancy to natal charts to marriage, health, and death horoscopes, in addition to explanations of the structure of the universe and the elemental relationships between worlds, human beings, celestial movements, and the seasons. It is a system of assessing and affecting the environment that is still practiced today.

The history of the manuscript

The White Beryl manuscript paintings were created by a master artist commissioned by the Sakya court in the early to mid-eighteenth century. The manuscript came to light in the late 1980s and was acquired by London collector Sam Fogg, who, in partnership with John Eskenazi, supported research and a subsequent major publication of the manuscript.

Gyurme Dorje, a renowned British scholar of Tibetan Buddhist texts, researched the sources of the manuscript and the content of the images in consultation with Tibetan scholars of history, astrology, and divination, resulting in a beautiful and weighty (19.4 pounds), 432-page, oversized tome published in 2001 and 2008 by Paul Holberton Publishing.

Explore astrological paintings

The acquisition of this manuscript offers new possibilities for exhibitions and scholarship. A small selection of the White Beryl paintings will be displayed in February as part of the exhibition Masterworks: Jewels of the Collection. Selected leaves from the manuscript were previously shown on loan during our exhibition Bodies in Balance: The Art of Tibetan Medicine. Our collection also includes an astrological scroll, a Kalachakra Tantra scroll, and astrological and protective charts.