Description This ritual vessel, made from the upper section of a human skull, belongs to the tantric Buddhist traditions of Tibet and neighboring regions. The skull serves as a reminder of death and impermanence, and it symbolizes wisdom and emptiness—the true nature of reality, according to Buddhist teachings. In practice, such skull cups are used to prepare and contain a sacred liquid (usually tea mixed with dissolved herbs), which is consecrated as the nectar of enlightened bliss, then consumed or used to sanctify ritual offerings. The imagery on the metal cover and stand of this skull cup relates to the mental imagery visualized by the practitioner as he or she prepares the nectar: The skull sits above a triangular fire, the corners of which are marked by three human heads. In the visualization, their colors correspond to three mental states that immediately precede the light of pure mental clarity: white (luminosity), red (radiance), and blue-black (near-attainment). Within the skull, the practitioner visualizes five bodily substances and five types of meat, which are purified through the heat of the fire, then transformed into nectar when combined with the substance of a tantric staff, which melts into the skull cup from above. Each element of the visualization appears first as a sacred syllable before morphing into its respective object; the letters of some of these syllables appear on the lid, interspersed with deities.
Cleaned to remove dirt and grime; detached sections re-adhered.
- Ferocious Beauty: Wrathful Deities from Tibet and Nepal. 2016-2017.
Provenance Acquired by William T. or Henry Walters, Baltimore; by bequest to Walters Art Museum, 1931.
Credit Acquired by William T. or Henry Walters
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