Sacred knowledge: the shared passion of John and Susan Huntington
Spanning five decades of scholarly research and adventure, this collection comprises rare Tibetan and Indian art from a scholar’s point of view
John and Susan Huntington’s collection is as much an academic resource as it is a collection of magnificent art. In their home, these pieces were displayed with an appreciation for their singular beauty, but also studied passionately, both privately and with their students, in hopes of uncovering what might be hiding under the surface. The couple were drawn to the mysteries that their more esoteric pieces possessed. Paired with a sense of adventure, their work in the field of Asian art revealed new avenues of study for students of art history, and their collection gave those same students first-hand experience with objects they would have never otherwise been able to see.
The Collection of John C. and Susan L. Huntington, on sale at Christies on 21 September, is one of the most well-curated selections of Himalayan and Indian art, collected by two of the field’s most prominent researchers. Their books and articles changed the shape of the discipline, and their impact on the academic community is still felt today in a collection of photographs from their travels around Asia — images of monuments and archaeological sites throughout the Buddhist world — which makes up the foundation of The Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Asian Art, now housed at the University of Chicago.
In 1975, John established himself as an expert on the Tibetan ritual dagger, known as the phurbha, with the publication of his paper, The Phur-pa: Tibetan Ritual Daggers. It brought him to amassing one of the most comprehensive collections of these objects in private hands, but also to other artefacts featuring the three-pointed dagger.
His acquisition of the gilt bronze figure of Vajrakilaya and Consort was undoubtedly informed by this study. Vajrakilaya — a deity in Tibetan Buddhism known for his wrathful qualities — is often depicted with the phurbha in one of his six arms. Adorned also by beaded necklaces inlaid with turquoise, and heavily cast with a rich gilding, it was made for Densatil Monastery or one of its satellite monasteries in central Tibet, in the fourteenth or early fifteenth century.
John did not, however, confine his collecting or his studies to just one deity. Indeed, the numerous gods in Tibetan Buddhism all play a key spiritual role, but other concepts, like the mandala, bring its teachings into the corporeal, tactile world.
A mandala is a conception of the universe — specifically how the corporeal realm of the Earth is arranged with those of the heavens. At its core, a mandala painting is a two-dimensional representation of this multi-dimensional space. In practice, mandalas serve as guides for meditation, as mnemonic devices, or as illustrated references for high-level Buddhist practitioners to visualize the order of the universe.
As a scholar of precisely this area, John saw the rare painting of a Shat Chakravarti mandala that he purchased in 1968 as a puzzle to be figured out. In his book Circle of Bliss, he created highly-detailed illustrations which demonstrated the compositional significance of the Shat Chakravarti mandala painting. His research in the book sought to go beyond the beauty of the object — that is, he created a key to understanding the spiritual practice in a specific, informed, and practical way, while paying respect to the artists and deities involved in its creation.
John went beyond merely parroting jargon as a way of teaching. His methodology was grounded in the visual and iconographic as well as the theoretical. He used diagrams, for example, as ways of communicating the deeper principles of Tibetan Buddhist practice rather than just repeating its axiomatic, academic perceptions.
The very rare gilt-copper figural lotus mandala of Chakrasamvara from his collection can be appreciated along the same lines. Like the mandala painting, John appreciated this object both as a beautiful work of art as well as a didactic tool for elucidating a complex Buddhist philosophy. Indeed, this figural mandala is no different in concept to a painted mandala: it has a central deity with others surrounding it in petals of the lotus, with the only difference between the two being that this object represents in three dimensions what a painted mandala depicts in two.
What is striking about it is its enduring craftsmanship, and how that relates to its spiritual role. More than 500 years old, it was conceived of and built with the action of opening and closing in mind. As Tristan Bruck, specialist in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art explains: ‘It’s possible that the action of opening and closing speaks to the idea of the fourth dimension — that is, time. The act of opening the mandala is perhaps a metaphor for that moment of creation where this conception of the philosophy emerges into the mind of the practioner.’
John also collected Tibetan paintings at a time when few were collecting them. Two important paintings of Tara included in this sale come from a larger set of 21 works created at Palpung Monastery in Eastern Tibet in the eighteenth century. At the time that he acquired them, most scholarship was directed toward Tibetan art from the fifteenth century and earlier — things like the Shat Chakravarti mandala or the figure of Vajrakilaya and Dipti Chakra, both from this earlier period.
Devoid of compositional elements, the Tara paintings rely on the boldness of the palette, and direct the eye immediately to the centre of the painting. This scarcity — a central deity juxtaposed against pale mountains receding into unpainted ground — borrows from traditional Chinese painting styles, but it is unusual in Tibetan Buddhist art in that it shows a deity in isolation, separate from, while in harmony with their environment. Often, spiritual works serve the purpose of telling a story, or portraying a sense of being, but these find a middle ground between aesthetic beauty and religious underpinning. Precisely this, we can imagine, is why John was so drawn to them in the late 1960s, even though a course had not yet been charted for its study.
For Susan, whose specialty was in Indian art from the Pala period (from roughly the eighth to twelfth century CE), religious motifs were also central to her work. The Huntingtons collected a series of paintings in the 1970s that depicted scenes from the great Indian epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In one such painting, the ‘Bharany’ Ramayana — which takes its name from its original owner C.L. Bharany — Rama, Lakshmana and Sita have been exiled from the court palace and have adopted a life of ascetic simplicity in the forests of India. Although the wider importance of this dispersed ‘Bharany’ Ramayana painting set was only understood much later, Susan was drawn to the painting for its lively colours, charming style, and its didactic importance for telling the history of Indian art.
The couple collected other paintings from C.L Bharany, including some from a Mahabharata series. Like the Ramayana painting, its composition is divided, this time with the diagonal walls of a camp tent, pulling the viewer’s eyes in towards the centre of the painting — a characteristic of the Pahari style of painting from the foothills of northern India. Entering at one point, the eye traces this path across multiple scenes much in the same way as a reader follows a story across multiple chapters.
Another sculpture from the collection, the black stone stele of the Buddha’s descent from the Trayastrimsha Heaven, depicts one of the most identifiable moments in the story of Buddhism. Made in Bihar in Northeastern India during the Pala period in the ninth century, it was created in the geographic cradle of Buddhism’s origins during a period of explosive icon production and prosperity in the region.
It would likely have been placed in a niche within the walls of a temple as a powerful reminder of the transcendence of Buddha Shakyamuni. It depicts him with a diaphanous sanghati draped over both shoulders, standing on a double-lotus base with a carved inscription below. On his right, the deity Brahma can be identified by the two visible faces (with the other two out of the sculpture’s perspective) and ascetic appearance, while on his left the god Indra is presented in royal garb befitting his status as the king of the Trayatrimsha Heaven.
Susan’s studies, symbolised by these objects, would be elucidated in her myriad articles and books, like 1990’s Leaves from the Bodhi Tree, an art historical account of the Pala period in India. The success of this book, among others, saw her receive awards and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Fulbright Awards Program, the National Endowment for Humanities and the Smithsonian Institution, all while continuing a teaching career at The Ohio State University, with years spent at Northwestern University and the University of Oxford.
Both John and Susan were collecting objects and paintings they found academically challenging, rather than pieces which already had established scholarship. Because of this, their research was decades ahead of their peers. While much of the academic world was focusing on the art popular in the moment, they were already charting a new cartography, publishing seminal articles throughout their exploration.
Above all, however, they were teachers. Every part of their collection was used as a research aid for them, for their students, or for their peers. Their photographs at the University of Chicago preserve their fieldwork and travels, but this collection demonstrates their love of learning, teaching, and uncovering the secrets that eluded their peers. It is an exceptional collection of art, but it comes from two of the most important scholars to have graced the field.