Large Tibetan Lama Cabinet

19th C. or earlier
Pine, mineral colors, guilding
68½” H. 52½” W. 16” D.

This cabinet was made for a temple or monastery in Tibet. Because of their largely nomadic existence, most ordinary Tibetans had little if any furniture. Small tables were used to serve food and drink, and often double as altar table on which offerings could be placed. Chests were made for more affluent members of society to store precious things, and for monasteries and temples which needed large cabinets to store the vast quantities o precious silks, thangkas, and Buddhist scriptures accumulated through trades and donations.
There is no tradition of fine furniture in Tibet, as there is in China, as only softwood such as pine and cedar were available on the high plateau of Tibet. Scarcity of wood made wood a precious commodity for furniture making and as building material. The wood used was usually of indifferent quality and often included recycled pieces. Instead of focusing on making items from precious hardwood, like their counterparts in China, Tibetan furniture makers instead display their talents through surface decoration like painting and carving. Like all areas of Tibetan art, these often relate to a strong Buddhist culture, typically taking on Tantric practices originating from India.
To create their designs, Tibetan painters used mineral pigments suspended in animal glue, mixed by hand and applied warm. A relatively limited range of colors was available prior to the 19th C. The most frequently used were green, dark blue or blue-green, deep red, orange, yellow, as well as white and black. Pigments of brighter and lighter shades were only available by early 20th C. The dark pigments used on the present cabinet point to it being of an early age. In addition to paint, the Tibetan artisan made use of gesso to create raised designs and textured surfaces, which produced a very rich embossed effect. Furthermore, he finished the cabinet with a coat of transparent shellac to intensify the colors of paint and to provide some protection. With age the shellac turned yellow and brown, making the colors underneath darker and warmer in tone, providing a richer patina.
This cabinet has two big doors concealing a vast storage compartment behind, and three small panels below, with the middle one a sliding panel. The patterns and motifs on this cabinet consist of medallions centered with stylized floral designs, set on geometric textile pattern background (on the doors). Floral and geometric textile design is common on furniture of an early age, a copy of early Chinese brocade designs, for filling in backgrounds and borders.
The bottom three panels has a mythical snow lion inside a medallion, set on geometric textile pattern background, and a flaming-jewel motif within a medallion, set on geometric background. The snow lion motif is unique to Tibet. It acts as a guardian figure for some Tibetan deities, and is the vehicle for Vaishravana, a god of wealth.
This cabinet has all the characteristics of an early age Tibetan antique chest. It is not as refinely made as some Chinese hardwood furniture, but its cheerful colors and folksy arresting paintings make this a charming Tibetan treasure to collect. Authentic Tibetan antiques are rare today and are valuable. Continued interest in the West makes reproduction a thriving business for Tibetans who moved to neighboring Nepal due to political problems at home. These fake pieces have little value.