The Magic of Composition in Tibetan paintings
By the time the painter sat down to begin the sketch he already had in mind the main contents and design of the thangka. Usually, the patron had indicated to the painter precisely which deities he wanted to be depicted.
When the patron provided no diagram but knew exactly what he or she wanted, the painter carefully noted down the plan for his records, particularly if the painting was at all complicated or if he had a backlog of commissions.
Table of Contents
- 1 - The beginning of the composition of a Tibetian Painting
- 2 - Classification of Religious Paintings
- 3 - Paintings as rten
- 4 - The Presence or Absence of a Temporal Framework
- 5 - Established Groupings
- 6 - Principles of Composition in Individually Designed Thangkas
The beginning of the composition of a Tibetian Painting
With such a diagram or plan in hand, the job of establishing the composition was simplified. The artist then had only to divide up the painting surface, allocating the proper amount of space to each figure and sketching in the general outlines of the landscape.
But if the patron could provide no more than the names of the figures to be painted, it was often up to the artist to design a suitable layout. For a painting with multiple images, the artist would first determine from the patron which figure was to be the main one and which figures were subordinate, and he could then proceed with laying out the design.
In many instances, however, no consultation or new composition was necessary. A large number of the compositions were fixed by Buddhist iconography and artistic tradition, and these the painter could simply draw from memory or according to standard examples.
Further, we will know in more detail about some of the ways in which the painter established his sketch, including the techniques and principles which he followed for new compositions. But it will be best to introduce these methods and principles indirectly, by first describing and classifying the main types of compositions, especially those with established forms and contents. This is the best approach since the basic principles can be seen most clearly in the established compositions.
Classification of Religious Paintings
The majority of thangkas were rten, as were sacred statues, stupas, and scriptures. For a sacred object fully to function as a rten, it had to be ceremonially imbued with the spirit of enlightenment by means of a ritual consecration ceremony (rab gnas).
Paintings of the latter type could probably best be called “didactic” paintings. They include both straightforward illustrations of religious objects and monastic accessories, and symbolical representations of religious and cosmological concepts and themes.
Only a small number of paintings did not fit into either the rten or didactic classes. Among them were, for instance, paintings that had a ritual use as surrogate offerings in relation to a main rten image, such as the dmar rdzas (depictions of sacrifices) placed before the images of wrathful guardians in the Protectors
Chapel (mgon khang).
There were a few other unusual types of painting, such as poetical diagrams and protective and astrological diagrams and yantras. But here we will mainly be concerned with rten and didactic paintings and the varieties that they included.
Paintings as rten
Paintings that depicted the bodily forms of enlightened beings were considered to be sku rten (“body supports”).
Such paintings made up the vast majority of thangkas. We may also mention in passing a slightly. Different kind of rten painting in which inanimate sacred objects were depicted. When examining a large group of thangkas one occasionally comes across paintings of stupas, as well as of important temples and monasteries.
These too are rten paintings, because temples were thought of as varieties of “body support”, and stupas were “supports” of an enlightened mind.
The Presence or Absence of a Temporal Framework
Paintings of animate sku-rten figures can to some extent be further classified according to whether they do or do not express a definite temporal framework.
Most thangkas placed their subjects in a realm beyond ordinary space and time. in a pure realm (dag pai zhing khams) or Buddha field. They depicted no particular moment or event although as rten they embodied a living and immediate presence.
By contrast, some compositions clearly attempted to portray one or more episodes in the career of the subject, thus locating the event in the historical or legendary past. We could call such thangkas “narrative paintings.” Some narrative thangkas portray a succession of notable events in the life of an enlightened one or saint.
The twelve great deeds of the Buddha
Examples include thangkas of the twelve great deeds of the Buddha and of the important events in the life of Milarepa.
Such paintings could be called “biographical”. The subjects need not always be events in the life of a historical personage.
A thangka of King Gesar of Ling
A thangka showing episodes from the epic cycle of King Gesar of Ling would also constitute a biographical thangka. Another type of narrative thangka is that which portrays events from a succession of the past lives of some great being.
Outstanding events in the past lifetimes of Sakyamuni as set down in the JeLtaka tales (skyes rabs) were sometimes the subject of paintings. All types of narrative paintings could be painted either as single works or as a series of compositions each of which depicted one or many events.
In paintings that portrayed several episodes, the episodes were separated from each other by walls or boundaries, or by empty spaces in the landscape. Some single paintings depicted only one episode from the life of a saint, such as the meeting of Milarepa with the hunter. In such paintings, the main figure was commonly portrayed in a more realistic manner, placed (as far as the style permitted) within an almost three-dimensional landscape.
When drawing such episodes from a saint’s life the artist generally had a greater amount of compositional freedom. The remaining types of rten thangkas are those that portray the sacred figures in their general aspect within a pure realm, and not as actors in a particular situation.
The simplest of such compositions merely consists of a single figure placed in the middle of a background. Here the only differences in composition between similar paintings derive from the varying complexity of the backgrounds. But when the composition consists of many sacred figures, another distinction has to be made.
Some paintings depict figures whose identities and positions are iconographically prescribed. But distinct from those there are also many paintings in which the needs or wishes of the patron determined the selection and placement of the particular figures.
Among the compositions that consisted of a fixed grouping, most possessed the main figure (gtso bo) and a “retinue” or group of lesser figures (‘khor).
Some paintings, however, depicted groups with no main figure, showing each figure as an equal of the others. The eighty-four Siddhas, the thirty-five Buddhas of confession, and the sixteen “arhats” could be painted in the latter way, although they could also be combined with the main figure or with some other groupings.
The eighty-four Mahasiddhas
The eighty-four Mahasiddhas could be painted around the central and main figure of the Buddha Vajradhara. Similarly, artists almost always painted the composition of the sixteen arhats around the central figure of the Buddha Sakyamuni.
This composition would also include the two main disciples of the Buddha, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, the two companions of the arhats, Hwa-shang and Dharmatala, and the four Lokaplas, the great guardian kings of the four directions. Other examples of a fixed grouping with a main figure and retinue are found in paintings involving.
Padmasambhava is sometimes depicted as one of three figures as listed below:
- The Dharmakaya Samantabhadra (chos-sku kun-tu-bzang-po)
- The Sambhogakaya Vajrasattva (longs-sku rdo-rje-sems-dpa)
- The Nirmal akaya Padmasambhava (sprul-sku padma- ‘byung-gnas)
The great master Padmasambhava is also shown together with a retinue of his twenty-six main disciples. Another grouping depicted him in eight famous manifestations.
Furthermore, there existed a famous set of block-prints depicting all twenty six disciples in combination with the eight manifestations.
The example par excellence of the fixed composition involving the main figure with retinue was the mandala. The symbolism of a mandala is complex, but essentially the form depicts a coherent group of deities seated symmetrically around a main central figure within the ground-plan of a divine mansion.
The mandala represents the citadel of enlightenment, portraying it as a dynamic integration of complementary aspects and energies. Mal).
Mandala paintings on cloth supports were sometimes made up into thangkas and framed in brocades in the usual way, but in Vajrayana consecration rituals and in certain other rituals and meditational practices they were more commonly used unframed.
The Main Figure in its Pure Realm
Another type of composition consisting of a chief figure with a retinue showed the main figure in his or her special pure realm.
In general, the idealized backgrounds of most thangkas and murals were meant to portray the physical surroundings of a Buddha-field or pure realm (dag pai zhing khams).
However, in some compositions, the artist made a special effort to depict a specific realm. Amitabha and Avalokitesvara were commonly painted as if in the realm of Sukhavati Padmasambhava often appears on his famous copper-colored mountain (zangs mdog dpal gyi ri), and the kings of Shambhala are also portrayed in their own special domain.
One of the most straightforward types of the composition also involved a large number of figures. These compositions consisted of a central main figure surrounded by many smaller identical figures, although sometimes the surrounding figures would be another aspect or manifestation of the same central deity.
The lesser figures were arranged in vertical and horizontal columns and usually were painted only in outline. The number of these smaller figures was often between one and two hundred and their size would be anywhere from half to one-fifth of the size of the main deity.
Such thangkas did not contain a background landscape but were usually painted with either a red or black background and with the smaller figures painted in gold outline. Occasionally the background was painted in gold and the figures, in this case, would be outlined in red.
The main figure was usually painted in full color, although sometimes this would also be an outline painting with only certain parts of the deity rendered in color. Such compositions were commissioned because there was felt to be greater merit in numbers by multiplying the number of figures the patron also multiplied the force of his merit or the force of the deity to counteract a threatening obstacle or problem.
Compositions That Depict Lineages
Another type of group composition that involved a main figure with a retinue portrayed the complete transmission lineage of a particular religious teaching. Nowadays the two most common varieties are the so-called “refuge trees” and the “assembly fields” (tshogs zhing).
For the religious practitioner, these paintings embodied the whole lineage through which the tradition descended, from its ultimate origin down to the practitioner’s own teacher. Such paintings could be used by a mediator in the tradition as a support for his or her visualizations.
The “refuge tree” depicts the objects or beings in which the practitioner takes refuge (skyabs su gro ba’i yul) that is to say, it represents the beings and things in which the Buddhist places his trust as prepara tion for and as an actual part of religious practice.
The common “refuges” of Buddhism are the Three Jewels the Buddha, Dharma, and Sanga. In Vajrayana Buddhism bestowers of refuge also include the gurus (both one’s immediate teacher and the earlier teachers of the lineage), yi-dam deities dakas and dakinis, and the protectors of the Dharma.
Usually, the givers of refuge were envisioned as dwelling in a great “wish-fulfilling tree” (dpag bsam gyi shing). In the center was one’s teacher in the form of the main figure, whose identity depended on the particular tradition being practiced.
Then on branches of the tree, which radiated out to the four cardinal points, were seated four of the other “refuges”. In practices stemming from new-translation-era Tantras one might find yi-dam deifies on the front branch, Buddhas on the branch to the main figure’s right (i.e. to the left with relation to the viewer), the Dharma in the form of a stack of sacred scriptures to the rear, and the Arya Sangha in the form of a group of monks and bodhisattvas on the branch to the main figure’s left.
Above the tree in the sky (or sometimes seated around the main figure in a circle) was depicted the line of teachers through whom the lineage had been transmitted to one’s immediate teacher. In the sky below the main branches of the tree, there dwelled a host of protectors and guardians.
Thangkas or murals called “assembly fields” also served as a help for the meditator in some traditions to visualize the totality of his lineage. Here again a great many figures were pictured, but not with the same spatial orientation as in the refuge tree.
The assembly field was a group of exalted beings who were worshipped and to whom offerings were made. The group constituted a special “field” (zhing) in relation to which the meditator could greatly increase his “assembly” (tshogs) of merit. The Dge-tugs-pa tradition produced most of the thangkas of this type, including those of the Graduated Path (lam rim) and Guru Worship (bla ma mchod pa) practices.
Assembly-field paintings contained a characteristic placement of their figures. The main, central figure occupied the central pinnacle of a lotus seat, and he was surrounded by descending concentric rows of exalted beings.
Each row or group of rows below the main figure consisted of figures belonging to one of eight classes of beings. In their descending order these were:
In the sky above the main figure there were three separate assemblies of teachers. The teaching lineage of the tantric empowerments and practices constituted the central group. On the main figure’s right there was the “Lineage of the Vast Conduct” (rgya chen spyod brgyud), the lineage of the Yogacara Mahayana descending from Maitreyanatha and Asanga.
On the other side was the “Lineage of the Profound View” (zab mo ita brgyud), the Madhyamaka tradition coming down through Manjusri and Nagarjuna. At the bottom of the composition, beneath the great lotus seat, there existed lesser deities who were not refugees, such as the four great guardian kings, the great worldly gods Brahma and Indra, and a number of goddesses making offerings.
Finally, to indicate the relationship of a practitioner to this vast assembly, a monk was often depicted in a lower corner making a symbolical offering of the universe and its contents in the form of a mandala.
Principles of Composition in Individually Designed Thangkas
In some of the established groupings that consisted of the main figure with a retinue, such as mandalas and assembly fields, not only were the identities of the figures determined but their placement within the composition also was rigidly controlled by textual prescription or traditional usage.
In certain other fixed-grouping paintings, however, the artist himself could determine the placement of some of the figures, and to some extent, he could add to or improvise with the layout. Yet even where such compositional leeway existed, the artist’s sketch was still guided by certain general principles of composition.
Such principles were almost universal within Tibetan religious art, and they are the very principles that we must spell out when describing how a painter could sketch a grouping of deities that he had never seen before.
Many of the thangkas that we have seen painted were begun merely on the basis of a list of the deities that the patron desired to be portrayed (such chosen deities were called dod lha).
The artist’s first task was to arrange those figures on the painting surface. What principles guided his work at this time?
To begin with, most often thangkas contained one main figure and a number of lesser ones. To indicate the relationship between the figures the artist employed both size and placement.
The most important figure was the largest and was painted in a central position, usually exactly upon the central vertical axis of the composition.
The next prominent principle of layout had to do with the lesser figures they were usually placed in symmetrical balance around the main figure, commonly above, below and on both sides of it, depending on the number of figures involved.
Certain compositions called for asymmetrical balance, with the main figure drawn in a superior size .but positioned to the right or left of the central axis, with the face in partial profile. However, most Central Tibetan painters used this sort of composition only when executing those for which established models such as famous block-prints existed.
Another important principle of composition in Tibetan painting was that of hierarchical arrangement. This principle was not evident in every rten thangka, but it was very important for the painter when he designed a new composition.
In a painting that depicted a number of smaller figures in the background, such as gurus, yi-dam deities, Buddhas and protectors, these – figures were not only arranged in a symmetrical pattern around the central figure but were generally grouped according to class – each class occupying a relatively higher or lower position within the composition.
In a multiple-figure composition whose “retinue” included depictions of gurus from the transmission lineage (brgyud pai bla mal, these figures traditionally occupied the highest elevations in the painting. Often at the top center, there was depicted the ultimate and primordial teacher Vajradhara in the new-translation
era (gsar ma pal tantric cycles, and Samantabhadra in the old (rnying rna pal. Similarly, the lord of the Tathagata family (rigs bdag) of the main figure occupied this position in some compositions, as when Amitabha was placed above the main figure of Avalokitesvara.
When a painter depicted many gurus or all of the teachers in the lineage, he would usually place these figures in a descending chronological sequence. He would begin first at the top center of the painting, arranging the figures in two series sloping down and away from the top center and then down both sides of the painting. The temporal sequence of the figures at the top was center, its right, its left, second right, second left, and so on.
In an elaborate composition with many figures of different classes, the next stratum below the gurus could be occupied by yi-dams and by Buddhas who were not conceived of as gurus of that particular lineage. (As mentioned above, a Buddha. could also be depicted at the top as the originator of the lineage). Finally, the major and minor protectors of the lineage were placed on the bottom levels.
The system of hierarchical stratification only operated in a relative way, that is, only among the figures actually present witp.in the composition, excluding the main figure. If no gurus were depicted, for instance, the next appropriate class could occupy the highest stratum.
If no class but protectors were depicted, even they could be painted in the highest positions. Although a few established compositional types did not follow the above principle, such stratification was typical of complex thangkas of “desired deities” (dod lha) that the painter had to design for a patron. At the very least the painter almost invariably placed gurus above, and protectors below, other types of figures.
This sort of hierarchical stratification was reflected in the composition of the “assembly fields” described above. It also appeared in certain visualizations codified by ritual texts, and it was followed in other spheres of Tibetan Buddhist religious activity as well.
The Venerable Dezhung Rinpoche pointed out to us that the ordering of the lesser figures in the background of a thangka (Le. the figures apart from the main, central figure) corresponded to the order in which the same classes of deities were addressed with benedictions (bkra shis) in the chanting of religious assemblies. The traditional sequence was as follows:
5) Daka and Dakini
7) Yaksa (gnodsbyinJ
9) Lesser deities (Mahanaga, gter-bdag, etc.)
Lama and Thangkas
A learned lama was quick to notice when the deities were placed out of order, whether in the liturgy chanted in the temples or in a thangka. We once heard a Sa-skya-pa a scholar criticize the composition of a recent painting where the artist had wrongly placed the yi-dam Hevajra above some of the gurus of the Sa-skya-pa lineage.
As he reminded us, the preeminence of the guru over the yidam is an important point that one also finds in biographical literature, for example in the life of Marpa the Translator (1012-1099) when the great Indian siddha Naropa projected the form of the yi-dam and asked Marpa to whom he would bow, to the yi-dam or to the guru himself. A similar episode also occurred in a dream that Rje-btsun Grags-pa-rgyal-mtshan ) had of his father Sa-chen Kun-dga-snying-po.
It bears repeating that the principle of hierarchy did not govern all compositions. In thangkas depicting teachers or great yogic adepts (mahasiddhas), yi-dams were sometimes placed above and before them in the sky, as if appearing there in a vision.
Also, for aesthetic reasons such as balance and equal distribution some artists placed members of different classes on the same level of the painting (although the relative status of the deities could still be shown by putting one deity outside and a little below the other).
Furthermore, a few painters were ignorant of these precise hierarchical conventions.
Nevertheless, most knew in general that they should put such figures as Buddhas and teachers above, and wrathful.