A pair of manuscript covers depicting the ‘Mahishasuramardini’ Durga cycle

Nepal, circa 17th century.
Opaque watercolour on wood.
11.5 x 51 cm each.

The present pair of Nepalese wood book covers are richly painted on their interior with the figures of ten mighty deities linked to the Mahishasuramardini Durga cycle, or the slaying of the buffalo demon Mahishasura by the all-powerful Goddess Durga. They come from the distinguished collection Ernst collection formed in Switzerland over the past forty years.

“Most manuscript covers and selected folios of manuscript are illuminated rather than illustrated. Frequently, the pictures bear little or no relation to the texts and consist of hieratic images. The principal purpose of such iconography pictures may have been prophylactic: the presence of the deities on the manuscript protected it from natural calamities and evil forces.” Pratapaditya Pal

The multi-armed goddesses are delineated with supreme vitality, brandishing swords and standing over different figures and animals. The arrangement of each deity, placed within a shrine supported by lions, with a kirtimukha torana above and sided by pillars topped by a yantra, is brought to life by the flows of energy and movement inhabiting the fluid lines and expressive details of the figures and architectural details.

The colour palette, restricted to red, yellow and green as per tradition, is enhanced by the vibrant and lively tones chosen by the artist to represent the power of the goddesses. The exterior of these book covers is equally painted, bearing a beautiful and harmonious foliate design.

Other related Nepalese manuscript covers can be found in the collections of leading Museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago or the LACMA.


Private collection, Switzerland, 1970s.

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