Nepalese religious painting, whether for Hindu or Buddhist patrons, is conservative in technique, style, and iconography. However, over the course of centuries, subtle changes can be seen in composition, palette, style, and motifs. Artists from the primarily Buddhist community of Newars, one of Nepal’s many ethnic groups, made most of the paintings that illuminated manuscripts and book covers as well as devotional paintings on cloth (paubhas). Newari artists were renowned throughout Asia for the high quality of their workmanship. In certain periods, their style had tremendous influence on the art of Tibet and China. Both countries also used artists from Nepal to work on important commissions.
Painted manuscript covers constitute the earliest examples of Nepalese painting in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection (1976.192.1-2). They protected pages written on long, narrow strips (made from palm fronds) that sometimes had small pictorial illuminations. These wooden covers, often embellished with carving and painting, often have one or two holes in them through which strings were threaded that kept the manuscript together. The decoration on manuscript covers often bears little or no relation to the text inside and usually consists of hieratic images of Buddhas or deities, either Buddhist or Hindu. One remarkable exception is a twelfth-century cover that depicts two scenes from a secular play, a romance, written in India in the fourth or fifth century that was most likely made to contain a copy of that text.
The same lively and richly detailed style that appears in manuscript illustrations and book covers was also used in larger Nepalese paintings on cloth, as seen in the animated background figures in a Buddhist mandala (1995.233), the earliest of such known Nepalese paubhas (ca. 1100). Two later paintings from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (1981.465; 1994.452), also Buddhist, share certain characteristics with the earlier painting despite a time span of more than 400 years. All three paintings are animated and drawn with flawless precision. All share a shallow space that is uniformly illuminated. Vivid, bold colors are enhanced by precise brushwork. However, the elaborate archway and more florid decorative tendencies in the fifteenth-century paubha of Achala (Tibet: Chandamaharoshana) (1994.452) are indicative of the more baroque treatment that is typical of later Nepalese art.