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Sarvavid in the Rubin Museum of Art

The MAS preserves a unique series of paintings depicting, step by step, meditation on the Sarvavid Vairocana mandala (AE.1977.0026). Sarvavid is the most important of the five 'Dhyani Buddhas' or meditative Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism. The series of paintings, which has 54 miniatures, was recognised as a Masterpiece by the Flemish government in 2018.

Curator Roselyne Francken

Curator Roselyne Francken

Nine paintings from the Sarvavid series recently left for New York, where they are on display in Death is Not the End. The Rubin Museum of Art asked for the miniatures on loan for this exhibition, which opened its doors on 17 March 2023.

MAS colleague Roselyne, curator of the Asia collection, travelled with the loans. Wondering what is involved in such a loan escort? You can read it here...

Painting on meditation on Sarvavid Vairocana's mandala: Folio 24, Light of the rainbow
Inner Mongolia, 18th-19th century
Pigment on paper
MAS, AE.1977.0026.36-54
In 'Death is not the end', The Rubin Museum of Art, New York


The transport box in the cargo container


It is my first time travelling with an international loan and my first New York trip. Pretty exciting! Yet fatigue prevails when the alarm rings at six o'clock....

At the airport, I receive regular messages from the art transport company. An employee supervises the works until they enter the hold and keeps me informed every step of the way. Via a tracker and a data logger in the crate, I can also check where the crate is at all times or check the temperature, for example.

Time for the flight. I once again go through the impressive study the Rubin Museum devoted to the miniatures: The All-Knowing Buddha: A Secret Guide. And I browse through the extensive film offerings. Resting hardly comes at all. Upon arrival, patience is required until the works are released. In a waiting room, I watch a cooking programme on an old television with half an eye.

The first glimpse of Manhattan, from the art transport truck

Once the miniatures are loaded for the art transport, we begin the long drive through Queens. The driver and his colleague tell me about the city and share visiting tips. But whether I will get around to them during the short work visit?

Arriving at the Rubin Museum, the coffin is given a place in the depot.

I gather my last strength for the walk to the hotel, a first introduction to the infamous New York blocks.


The second day is calm. The miniatures get a rest and can acclimatise before the box opens. This gives me a chance to meet some colleagues from New York. After a walk of more than 50 blocks, which I start over-confidently without any notion of distance, I arrive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I am warmly welcomed there by some team members from the Asia Department.

After a talk and a tour, I continue my museum visit. The museum and its collections impress me, and I don't want to leave until I have seen everything. Many hours later, I step outside confidently. Sobering follows when I see two large posters on the imposing facade. Both of temporary exhibitions I missed....

Although I'm still feeling the morning walk, I want to get back to the hotel on foot and take in as many of the 'obligatory' sights on the way....


Each little spec of dust is blown out of the frame before framing.


The next morning, I am back at the Rubin Museum. The Sarvavid paintings are collected and taken to the framer. I travel along for the short distance. At the studio in Long Island City, I carefully inspect all the miniatures before they are framed. I take several photographs and check the detailed condition reports. The reports, prepared by a colleague who is a paper restorer, accurately describe the condition of the works before departure. 

I have no reason to complain about the working environment... Jazz music fills the room, and I enjoy the soothing atmosphere and the view of Manhattan.

In the evening, after the return transport, I visit the Whitney Museum of American Art. I am lucky enough to see a fantastic Edward Hopper exhibition during one of her last days.

The stairwell of the Rubin Museum of Art


The big day has arrived: the first three miniatures are given a place in the Death is Not the End exhibition. After a final check, the paintings are hung on the wall and anchored. I measure the relative humidity and temperature in the room. To see everything properly, there is a lot of light during installation. Measuring yields a value higher than the permissible 50 lux. The frames are therefore temporarily given a paper jacket. Only from the moment when the exhibition opens, the miniatures will be in the spotlights, which will then be perfectly adjusted.

The other six miniatures will be shown later, in alternating sets of three. Thus, none of the paintings will be exposed to the light for more than three months. In the meantime, they rest in the depot.

What is already hanging in the exhibition space gives an idea of the final result. I regret all the more that I will not be able to see the final exhibition (yet). Fortunately, after installing the Sarvavid paintings, there will be time for an extended visit to the museum's other, instructive presentations.

To make the most of my last evening in New York, I venture out for another long walk. Via The Village, Little Italy, Chinatown and Wall Street, I descend to Battery Park. The breathtaking view of Lady Liberty immediately makes me forget the pain in my feet...

View of Lady Liberty from Battery Park ... for those with good eyes.


I reserve the last few hours before the return flight for a visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa). That the lid of my coffee cup comes off during the walk there, resulting in a big stain on a new jumper, should not spoil the fun: MoMa also impresses with an incredibly rich selection. It is queuing for Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night, but I stay longest at René Magritte's Les amants.  

Time for the journey home... (And I am happy to report that I resisted the temptation to buy NY merchandise!)

About the expo

Death is Not the End
The Rubin Museum of Art, New York
17 March 2023 – 14 January 2024


Read more

Sarvavid Vairocana

The 54 preserved miniatures in this series together form a visual guide for meditation on a mandala. This is a depiction of the cosmos, in this case with Sarvavid Vairocana – the most important of the five heavenly or dhyani Buddhas.

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