- ca. 18th century
- Metalwork and human skull
- Catalog Number
- C2004.8.1a-b (HAR 65333)
- Rubin Museum of Art
The skull cup is a symbolic tantric ritual object. It often appears held by deities or Tibetan Buddhist masters, such as Milarepa or Padmasambhava. Generally, the skull signifies the impermanent, illusory, and empty nature of all things. This key philosophical concept applies to the understanding of one’s own self as well as the existence of external objects. The skull is often paired with a flaying knife, as seen in images of tantric deities such as Vajrayogini. Both implements are meant to focus the practitioner’s physical and mental processes, the foundational contemplative goals of tantric practices, aimed to remove any false conceptions of an independent, substantial self.
In Himalayan cultures religious merit is the overarching reason for creating, commissioning, dedicating, and using religious works of art.
Religious rituals and the commissioning of art can serve everyday secular needs, the most common being wealth, health, and long life.
Tantric practitioners strive to transform themselves by using meditative and ritual tools with the ultimate goal of enlightenment or awakening.
Many Himalayan paintings serve as illustrations and instructional tools that bring forth stories about the Buddha, Tibetan masters, and more.
Instructive paintings can illustrate religious doctrines, medical and astrological charts, or images of ritual implements and meditative postures.