Tibetan Buddhist Art

See works of art
  • Portrait of a Lama, Possibly Dromton
    1991.152
  • Portrait of the Indian Monk Atisha
    1993.479
  • Portrait of The Great Teacher Marpa
    1995.176
  • Buddha Amoghasiddhi with Eight Bodhisattvas
    1991.74
  • Portrait of Jnanatapa surrounded by lamas and mahasiddhas
    1987.144
  • Portrait of an abbot
    1991.304
  • An Arhat, a Buddhist Saint
    1994.93
  • Mandala of Jnanadakini
    1987.16
  • Illuminated pages from a dispersed Dharani manuscript
    1986.509.1a,b
  • Mahakala Panjaranatha (Protector of the Tent)
    2015.500.4.18
  • Vajra Flaying Knife
    1985.397
  • Ritual Censer
    1987.416.2
  • Roundel with Karma Lineage
    2003.495
  • Yamantaka, Destroyer of the God of Death
    69.71
  • Cabinet for Ritual Utensils
    2015.500.4.21

Works of Art (16)

Essay

Buddhism was introduced to Tibet by the seventh century and was proclaimed the state religion by the end of the eighth century. Although Buddhist influence waned during persecutions between 838 and 942, the religion saw a revival beginning in the late tenth century. It rapidly became dominant, inaugurating what is known as the “later diffusion of the Buddhist faith.” During the first few hundred years of this renewed interest, many monks from Tibet traveled abroad to India (1995.176), the homeland of Buddhism, to study the religion, and Indian scholars were invited to Tibet to lecture and give teachings (1993.479). Although Tibet’s vast geographic area and its many adjacent neighbors—India and Kashmir, Nepal, the northern regions of Burma (Myanmar), China, and Central Asia (Khotan)—are reflected in the rich stylistic diversity of Tibetan Buddhist art, during the late eleventh and early twelfth century, Pala India became the main source of artistic influence. In the thirteenth century and thereafter, Nepalese artists were also commissioned to paint thankas and make sculptures for Tibetan patrons. By the fourteenth century, stylistic influences from Nepal and China became dominant and in the fifteenth century these fused into a truly Tibetan synthesis.

Although numerous monks were artists, there were also lay artists who traveled from monastery to monastery and, with a few exceptions, it is difficult to assign a particular style to a monastery or sect. Most artists were anonymous and rarely signed their works, although names have survived in texts, in murals on monastery walls, and on some thankas and bronzes. In addition to Tibetan artists, the names of Indian, Nepalese, Central Asian, and Chinese artists were recorded.

Many sculptures and paintings were made as aids for Buddhist meditation. The physical image became a base to support or encourage the presence of the divinity portrayed in the mind of the worshipper. Images were also commissioned for any number of reasons, including celebrating a birth, commemorating a death, and encouraging wealth, good health, or longevity. Buddhists believe that commissioning an image brings merit for the donor as well as to all conscious beings. Images in temples and in household shrines also remind lay people that they too can achieve enlightenment.

Kathryn Selig Brown
Independent Scholar

October 2003

Citation

Brown, Kathryn Selig. “Tibetan Buddhist Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tibu/hd_tibu.htm (October 2003)

Further Reading

Heller, Amy. Tibetan Art. Milan: Editoriale Jaca Book SpA, 1999.

Reynolds, Valrae, et al. From the Sacred Realm: Treasures of Tibetan Art from the Newark Museum. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1999.

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