The Chester Beatty Library and Its East Asian Collections: The New CBL Galleries

By Pollard, Clare | Antiquity, September 2000 | Go to article overview

The Chester Beatty Library and Its East Asian Collections: The New CBL Galleries


Pollard, Clare, Antiquity


The Chester Beatty Library is home to a rich collection of manuscripts, prints, miniature paintings, printed books and works of art from countries across Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe -- the result of a lifetime of collecting by its founder, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968). Beatty, an American mining magnate, became involved with the arts of East Asia early in his collecting career. A childhood interest in minerals is said to have attracted him to Chinese snuff bottles carved from precious stones and he had built up substantial collections of Chinese and Japanese decorative arts by the early 20th century. A trip to Asia in 1917 added Chinese and Japanese paintings to his interests, and he later expanded his collections to include manuscripts, painting, printed material and decorative arts from Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and the Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Burma (Myanmar) and Indonesia.

In 1950, Beatty retired to Dublin, where he built a Library for his collections in Shrewsbury Road, and on his death in 1968, he bequeathed the collections in trust for the benefit of the public. Thirty-one years later, the Chester Beatty Library moved from its original home into larger, more accessible premises in the city centre. On 7 February 2000, on what would have been its founder's 125th birthday, the Library opened to the public in Dublin Castle's Clock Tower, an 18th-century building renovated and redesigned for use by the Library, with purpose-built exhibition galleries, improved specialist and public reading facilities and expanded educational programmes.

The move has allowed the CBL to reorganize its displays into two main exhibitions: one reflecting Beatty's interest in religious manuscripts; the other focusing on artistic production and highlighting the themes of painting, calligraphy, printing and book-binding.

The first of these galleries is devoted to the great religious traditions of the world. Here, Buddhism is approached through the concept of the `Three Jewels of Buddhism': the Buddha, the Dharma (his teaching) and the Sangha (the religious community). The Three Jewels form the starting point for an exploration of the different expressions of Buddhism across Asia. Theravada Buddhist treasures in the Library include vividly painted Burmese and Thai folding books, while the Tibetan collection is known for its ritual objects and thangka painted hanging scrolls, used as a focus for meditation or in the many rites and ceremonies which are an essential part of Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism (FIGURE 1). Among the Mahayana Buddhist material from China and Japan are a group of 10th-century Chinese sutras excavated from the caves at Dun Huang and one of the Japanese miniature pagodas known as the Hyakumanto darani, made in AD 769 to contain printed Buddhist charms that are the earliest surviving examples of Japanese printing. …

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