Tibetan art

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Thanka of Ashtamahabhaya Tara, late 12th century Ashtamahabhaya Tara, late 12th century, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.jpg
Thanka of Ashtamahabhaya Tara, late 12th century
15/16th century carved manuscript cover. An excellent example of the Tibetan carvers art with simple designs containing sacred elements. Sculpted and lacquered, this manuscript cover has stupas and canopies within geometric designs. Primary to this woodcarvings rich appointment of iconography, are the auspicious symbols (ashtamangala) including: the "Precious Umbrella" that symbolizes the wholesome activity of preserving beings from harmful forces; the "Victory Banner" that celebrates the activities of one's own and others' body and mind over obstacles, as well as the "Vase of Treasure" holding and endless reign of wealth and prosperity. Tibetan-art-carving.jpg
15/16th century carved manuscript cover. An excellent example of the Tibetan carvers art with simple designs containing sacred elements. Sculpted and lacquered, this manuscript cover has stupas and canopies within geometric designs. Primary to this woodcarvings rich appointment of iconography, are the auspicious symbols (ashtamangala) including: the "Precious Umbrella" that symbolizes the wholesome activity of preserving beings from harmful forces; the "Victory Banner" that celebrates the activities of one's own and others' body and mind over obstacles, as well as the "Vase of Treasure" holding and endless reign of wealth and prosperity.

For more than a thousand years, Tibetan artists have played a key role in the cultural life of Tibet. From designs for painted furniture to elaborate murals in religious buildings, their efforts have permeated virtually every facet of life on the Tibetan plateau. The vast majority of surviving artworks created before the mid-20th century are religious, with the main forms being thangka, paintings on cloth, mostly in distemper, Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings, and small statues in bronze, or large ones in clay, stucco or wood. They were commissioned by religious establishments or by pious individuals for use within the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and were manufactured in large workshops by monks and lay artists, who are mostly unknown. Various types of religious objects, such as the phurbu or ritual dagger, [1] are finely made and lavishly decorated. Secular objects, in particular jewellery and textiles, were also made, with Chinese influences strong in the latter. [2]


Himalayan art is an overall term for Tibetan art together with the art of Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh and neighbouring parts of Mongolia and China where Tibetan Buddhism is practiced. Sino-Tibetan art refers to works in a Tibetan style and with Tibetan Buddhist iconography produced in either China or Tibet arising from patronage by Chinese emperors. The artists seem to have been a mixture of Tibetan and Chinese, with some Newari from Nepal, [3] and the place of manufacture is often uncertain between the two.

Tibetan religious art has been described as "almost unbelievably conservative", to a large extent representing "the perpetuation of the forms and iconography of the last phase of Buddhist art of India". This was the Pala-Sena art of north-east India, relatively close to Tibet, and the home of key figures like Atisha, a missionary from Nalanda in Bihar. After the decline of Buddhism in India soon after, very little survives from the Indian Buddhist art of this or earlier periods except monumental sculpture, and art historians must deduce much about this vanished culture from Tibetan works. [4] Other influences on Tibetan art over the centuries came from Chinese and Nepalese Buddhist art. Landscape backgrounds were adopted from Chinese painting from about the 14th century for some thanka, [5] and Chinese ornamental styles became dominant around 1700. [6]

The finest achievements are typically considered to be in painted thanka and small bronzes (often gilt-bronze), where the best works have very high levels of technical skill. These were generally private works, only seen within monasteries, and often specifically designed for meditation. More public art includes large statues for prayer halls, large appliqué thankas for temporary display during festivals on thangka walls, and sand mandalas, also temporary.

Mahayana Buddhist influence

Bronze statue of Buddha Akshobya, Tibet, 12th-13th century AD British Museum Tibetan Buddha (BM).JPG
Bronze statue of Buddha Akshobya, Tibet, 12th–13th century AD British Museum

As Mahayana Buddhism emerged as a separate school in the 4th century AD, it emphasized the role of bodhisattvas, compassionate beings who forgo their personal escape to nirvana in order to assist others. From an early time, various bodhisattvas were also subjects of statuary art. Tibetan Buddhism, as an offspring of Mahayana Buddhism, inherited this tradition. But the additional dominating presence of the Vajrayana (or Buddhist tantra) may have had an overriding importance in the artistic culture. A common bodhisattva depicted in Tibetan art is the deity Chenrezig (Avalokitesvara), often portrayed as a thousand-armed saint with an eye in the middle of each hand, representing the all-seeing compassionate one who hears our requests. This deity can also be understood as a yidam , or 'meditation Buddha' for Vajrayana practice.

Tantric influence

Dharmapala, Field Museum, Chicago. Yama the Lord of Death.jpg
Dharmapala, Field Museum, Chicago.

More specifically, Tibetan Buddhism contains Tantric Buddhism, also known as Vajrayana Buddhism for its common symbolism of the vajra, the diamond thunderbolt (known in Tibetan as the dorje). Most of the typical Tibetan Buddhist art can be seen as part of the practice of tantra. Vajrayana techniques incorporate many visualizations during meditation, and most of the elaborate tantric art can be seen as aids to these visualizations; from representations of meditational deities (yidams) to mandalas and all kinds of ritual implements.

A surprising aspect of Tantric Buddhism is the common representation of wrathful deities, often depicted with angry faces, circles of flame, or with the skulls of the dead. These images represent the Protectors (Skt. dharmapala) and their fearsome bearing belies their true compassionate nature. Actually their wrath represents their dedication to the protection of the dharma teaching as well as to the protection of the specific tantric practices to prevent corruption or disruption of the practice. They are most importantly used as wrathful psychological aspects that can be used to conquer the negative attitudes of the practitioner.

Bön influence

The indigenous shamanistic religion of the Himalayas is known as Bön. Bon contributes a pantheon of local tutelary deities to Tibetan art. In Tibetan temples (known as lhakhang), statues of the Buddha or Padmasambhava are often paired with statues of the tutelary deity of the district who often appears angry or dark. These gods once inflicted harm and sickness on the local citizens but after the arrival of Padmasambhava these negative forces have been subdued and now must serve Buddha.

Contemporary Tibetan art

Painting by Sonam Dolma Brauen, 2008 "visionary artists for tibet" exhibition 200805-sonamdolma 008.jpg
Painting by Sonam Dolma Brauen, 2008 "visionary artists for tibet" exhibition

Contemporary Tibetan art refers to the art of modern Tibet, or Tibet after 1950. It can also refer to art by the Tibetan diaspora, which is explicitly political and religious in nature. Contemporary Tibetan art includes modern thangka (religious scroll paintings) that resemble ancient thangka, as well as radical, avant-garde, works.

Popular Contemporary Tibetan artists include Karma Phuntsok , Tibetan-Swiss painter Sonam Dolma Brauen [8] [9] and Jamyang Dorjee Chakrishar.

See also


  1. Rowland, 271
  2. Rowland, 271
  3. Rhie and Thurman, 277, 392; 278 and 393 for the rarer term of "Tibeto-Chinese", used when the Tibetan element is stronger.
  4. Rowland, 268-269, 268 quoted; Pala India, Maitreya – standing, OCTOBER 16, 2016
  5. Rhie and Thurman, 52, 64
  6. Rowland, 270
  7. British Museum Collection
  8. "Portfolio Sonam Dolma Brauen". portfotolio.net. 2010. Retrieved 2014-11-23.
  9. Eisenvogel (Across Many Mountains) in: di Giovanni, Janine (2011-03-07). "Across Many Mountains: escape from Tibet". The Daily Telegraph . Retrieved 2014-11-23.

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Further reading