Over life-size figure of the bodhisattva Padmapani, cave 1, Ajanta Caves, 5th century

Different types of Buddhist paintings

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Buddhist originated in the north of the Indian subcontinent, in modern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the earliest survivals dating from a few centuries after the historical life of Siddhartha Gautama from the 6th to 5th century BCE.

Types of Buddhist paintings

are visual art produced in the context of Buddhism.

It includes depictions of Gautama Buddha and other Buddhas and bodhisattvas, notable Buddhist figures both historical and mythical, narrative scenes from their lives, , and physical objects associated with Buddhist practice, such as vajras, bells, stupas and Buddhist temple architecture.

The origin of Buddhist paintings

Remains of early Buddhist painting in India are vanishingly rare, with the later phases of the giving the great majority of surviving work, created over a relatively short up to about 480 CE.

Tantric Buddhism started as a movement in eastern India around the 5th or the 6th century. Due to its geographical centrality in Asia, Tibetan Buddhist art received influence from Indian, Nepali, Greco-Buddhist and Chinese art.

Early paintings by Chan monks

The eastern part of Central Asia has revealed an extremely rich Serindian art (wall paintings and reliefs in numerous caves, portable paintings on canvas, sculpture, ritual objects), displaying multiple influences from Indian and Hellenistic cultures.

Early paintings by Chan monks tended to eschew the meticulous realism of Gongbi painting in favour of vigorous, monochrome paintings, attempting to express the impact of enlightenment through their brushwork.

Chan ink paintings continued to be practiced by monastics through the Yuan (1271 – 1368) and Ming (1368 – 1644) dynasties well into the Qing (1636 – 1912) dynasty.

The Chinese imperial patronage

Aside from Chan ink paintings, other forms of painting also proliferated, especially during the Ming dynasty, such as the Water and Land Ritual paintings and mural art which depict various Buddhist divinities and other figures.

However, it was under the rule of the third Qing ruler, the Qianlong Emperor, that imperial patronage of the Buddhist arts reached its height in this period.

He commissioned a vast number of religious works in the Tibetan style, many of which depicted him in various sacred guises.

Works of art produced during this period are characterized by a unique fusion of Tibetan and Chinese artistic approaches.

They combine a characteristically Tibetan attention to iconographic detail with Chinese-inspired decorative elements.

Inscriptions are often written in Chinese, Manchu, Tibetan, Mongolian and Sanskrit, while paintings are frequently rendered in vibrant colors.

Numerous temples throughout China still preserve various Buddhist paintings from previous dynasties.

The Goryeo kings also lavishly sponsored Buddhism and Buddhist art flourished, especially Buddhist paintings and illuminated sutras written in gold and silver ink.

The development of Zen Art

From the 12th and 13th, a further development was Zen art, mainly characterized by original paintings (such as sumi-e) and poetry (especially haikus), striving to express the true essence of the world through impressionistic and unadorned “non-dualistic” representations.

The Tibetan Buddhist Art

One of the most characteristic creations of Tibetan Buddhist art are the mandalas, diagrams of a “divine temple” made of a circle enclosing a square, the purpose of which is to help Buddhist devotees focus their attention through meditation and follow the path to the central image of the Buddha.

Artistically, Buddhist Gupta art and Hindu art tend to be the two strongest inspirations of Tibetan art.

Currents, artworks & places of discovery

This is a list of different types of Buddhist paintings together with some important places of discovery.


Thangka is an art. A thangka is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, silk applique, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. Thangkas are traditionally kept unframed and rolled up when not on display, mounted on a textile backing somewhat in the style of Chinese scroll paintings, with a further silk cover on the front.

is an art. A thangka is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, silk applique, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. Thangkas are traditionally kept unframed and rolled up when not on display, mounted on a textile backing somewhat in the style of Chinese scroll paintings, with a further silk cover on the front.

Buddhist painting

Buddhist painting, Butsuga (仏画) in a broad sense, refers to Buddhist paintings in general, including Buddhist biographies, Jataka tales, Pure Land variant paintings, Raigō, Buddhist narrative paintings such as the Two Rivers White Path and Six Paths paintings, Ancestors biographies, Emaki, E-toki, Ancestors drawings, Chinsō portraits of Zen monks, and portraits of ordinary monks. Chinsō, portraits of Zen monks, and portraits of ordinary monks.

Ajanta Caves

The Ajanta Caves are 30 (approximately) rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments which date from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 CE in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra state of India. The caves include paintings and rock-cut sculptures described as among the finest surviving examples of ancient Indian art, particularly expressive paintings that present emotion through gesture, pose and form.

The Butsuzōzui (仏像図彙) is a collection of Buddhist iconographic sketches said to have been painted by Hidenobu Tosa of the Tosa school. Originally published in 1690 in five volumes, it comprises more than 800 sketches, inspired by the Chinese style of paintings called Paihuo, with the Buddhist icons divided into five parts and further categorized. In Edo-period Japan the Butsuzōzui compendium was the most widely distributed source for information on Buddhist and Shinbutsu deities.

Mogao Caves

The , also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes or Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, form a system of 500 temples 25 km (16 mi) southeast of the center of Dunhuang, an oasis located at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road, in Gansu province, China. The caves may also be known as the Dunhuang Caves; however, this term is also used as a collective term to include other Buddhist cave sites in and around the Dunhuang area, such as the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, Eastern Thousand Buddha Caves, Yulin Caves, and Five Temple Caves. The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years. The first caves were dug out in AD 366 as places of Buddhist meditation and worship. The Mogao Caves are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes and, along with Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes, are one of the three famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China.


Chinsō are commemorative portraits of Zen masters, a traditional form of East Asian art, specifically Zen art. They can be painted or sculpted and usually present a Zen master ceremonially dressed and seated upright in chair. Chinsō include realistic portraits of prominent Zen monks, possibly commissioned by them and painted while they were alive or shortly after they died, as well as depictions of famous Zen patriarchs from the past commissioned by his disciples.

Hell Scroll (Nara National Museum)

Hell Scroll is a scroll depicting seven out of the sixteen lesser hells presented in Kisekyō. Six of the paintings are accompanied by text, which all begin with the phrase “There is yet another hell”, following a description of what the sinners depicted did to end up in this particular hell.


Ōtsu-e was a folk art that began in 17th century Japan and depended on the busy road traffic of the trade route through the district where it was produced. With the coming of railways in the late 19th century, it largely disappeared.

Paradise of Bhaisajyaguru

(薬師佛) or Pure Land of Bhaisajyaguru is a painting during China’s Yuan Dynasty. This painting was originally housed in Guangsheng Lower Monastery, Zhaocheng County, Shanxi. The painting, which was at the eastern gable wall of the Main Hall of the monastery, was purchased by Arthur M. Sackler and later was given to Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States in 1954.

Raigō in Japanese Buddhism is the appearance of the Amida Buddha on a “purple” cloud (紫雲) at the time of one’s death.

Shigisan Engi Emaki

The is an emakimono or emaki made in the second half of the 12th century CE, during the Heian period of Japanese history (794–1185). It is an illuminated manuscript detailing miracles attributed to the monk Myōren, who lived on Mount Shigi near Nara in Japan in the latter part of the 9th century.

Silken Painting of Emperor Go-Daigo

is a portrait and Buddhist painting of Emperor Go-Daigo from the Nanboku-chō period. The painting was supervised by the Buddhist priest and protector of Emperor Go-Daigo, Bunkanbo Koshin. After his death, Buddhābhiṣeka opened his eyes on September 20, October 23, 1339, the fourth year of Enen4/Ryakuō, during the 57th day Buddhist memorial service..Meiji 33rd year (1900), April 7, designated as Important Cultural Property. As Emperor of Japan rather than Cloistered Emperor, he was granted the highest Abhisheka of Shingon Buddhism He was united with Vajrasattva, a Bodhisattva, as a secular emperor, and became a symbol of the unification of the royal law, Buddhism, and Shintoism under the Sanja-takusen, in which the three divine symbols were written. After the end of the Civil War of the Northern and Southern Dynasties, it was transferred to the head temple of the Tokishu sect, Shōjōkō-ji, by the 12th Yūkyō Shōnin, a cousin of Go-Daigo and the founder of the Tokishu sect. During the Sengoku period, it became an object of worship for the Tokimune sect of the time, and copies were made. Because it is directly related to the theory of kingship in the Kenmu Restoration, it is important in Art history, History of religion, and Political history. It is said to show the legitimate kingship as the protector of Vajrayana succeeding his father, Emperor Go-Uda, as well as the harmonious political and religious kingship as in the reign of Prince Shōtoku.

Ten Bulls

or Ten Ox Herding Pictures is a series of short poems and accompanying drawings used in the Zen tradition to describe the stages of a practitioner’s progress toward enlightenment, and their return to society to enact wisdom and compassion.

Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings

Most Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, temples and other religious structures in the Himalayas were decorated with . Despite much destruction in Tibet itself, many of these survive, the dry climate of the Tibetan plateau assisting their survival, as the wet Indian climate has reduced survival of paintings from there. There are some regional differences, but the techniques described here cover the traditional wall paintings across this area. The wall paintings were executed on earthen plaster with the secco-technique. A secco-technique is a painting technique in which the pigments with their binder are employed to paint onto a dry wall.

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