Dharmapala Thangka CentreIconography

Tibetan Iconography

Early Paintings from Central Tibet

Excerpted from Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet,

by Steven M. Kossak and Jane Casey Singer, with an essay by Robert Bruce-Gardner

© 1998 by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Reprinted by permission


The composition of Manjushri is striking both in adherence to convention and in innovation; the style of the central figure and the upper register of Buddhas, whatever the finesse of line, was con-strained by the formality demanded in their depiction, but in the attendant groups, in the figures breaking the painted borders, and in the foliate design, we see that imagination was allowed free rein. The relatively matte paint, opaque and light in tone, was thin and fluid on a ground that left the weave exposed. In some areas, where the more intense and thicker lay-ers of azurite and malachite have been abraded or lost, there is evidence of a lucid under drawing; the stem structure of the partially exposed leaves in the upper right was reversed in the surface rendering.

The outline borders of the color fields were defined with a narrow brush and a controlled hand, then filled with broader fluid strokes; these areas are very precisely confined, with only occasional overlap-ping. The use of glazes gave modeled form to the figures and to the otherwise flat petals of the lotus, and it deepened the folds of the garments. There is no elaborate decoration; outline and detail in lac and indigo, along with additional highlights of opaque white, brought definition to the lyrical foliage. A deep indigo layer leaves the malachite of the throne back exposed, thus forming the scroll motif, a technique refined in later years. Areas of gold are usually under painted. and the figure of Manjushri has two layers of yellow: the upper is warmer and more orange. The comparative stiffness of the gold paint is recorded in an X-ray detail. Within the care-ful outline, the broader but less fluid strokes can be seen, leaving the eyes, mouth, book, jewelry, and sash uncovered. The gold was finally given polish and luster by burnishing; the unburnished matte quality of the gold in the Metropolitan Museum's Portrait of a Lama is less usual.

The Buddha with Five Tathagatas and the Buddhist Hierarch, two paintings with close stylistic references in religious and dynastic tradition and date, invite not only speculation into the role of the commissioning donor but also observation of the diversity found in a simple but increasingly refined technique. It is difficult to visualize the original appearance of the Buddha because most of the light and white-based passages have been stained or darkened to some degree, but in technique it differs from the Manjushri. Here, the few basic colors have been modified and so multiplied by overlying glazes, and they have been outlined and embellished with exquisitely fine lines. The vertical yellow panels of the tem-ple structure at either side of the Buddha bear traces of delicate drawing, in opaque red, of vyalas, and above his head, in the yellow aureole, a minute Garuda in black, which is surrounded by an illegible pattern drawing, possibly similar to that more accessibly visible in the yellow above the left-hand figure in the large Book Cover painted on wood. In the Buddha, the contrast between the gloss of most pigments and the matte of the azurite and malachite is emphasized in reflecting light. The evolved and detailed border decoration of the Buddha is an element shared with the Buddhist Hierarch, as is the extent of drawing on the reverse of the painting. Devoid of any devotional or invocational script, the drawing on the reverse of the Buddha is precise and confident; the symbolic elements of the composition, rendered in thinned red paint, occupy the whole surface. The larger size of the Buddhist Hierarch allows for greater elaboration in the drawing: in the freely applied flying tendrils, in the more formal architectural elements with washes of color giving volume to the black outline drawing. This is a demonstration of virtuosity and an extension of the technique with the addition of color. This could be a summary of the painting itself: virtuosity and exquisite, extensive use of gold.

The Buddhist Hierarch is a painting that must have been commissioned with opulence in mind, perhaps to express a very particular reverence for the image portrayed or to convey an as yet undetermined form of propaganda for the sect. The density and purity of the pigments; the quality and assurance of the artist's control of form, line, and expression and the amount and cost of the gold indicate a specific commission. The appearance of the paint is of greater intensity than that of the Buddha, slightly less well bound and therefore less glossy. The number of colors, the number of pots of pigments and the mix-ture of pigments that the artist prepared was as limited, but the overriding difference is in the opulent use of gold and glazes.

The dominant splendors of the overarching rain-bows are, basically, alternating bands of white and yellow. The spectrum was made with thin and repeated washes of lac and of indigo: lac as red, over yellow becoming orange, fading to yellow; the yellow intensified to green under a wash of indigo; the indigo alone being blue. The evident continuity and evenness is masterful, because the technique allows for no mistakes; indeed, it relies upon even the faintest of marks making a visible difference to the layer below. The same control can be seen in the deli-cate wash around the features of the Hierarch and in the modeling of form throughout the painting. In the scrolling-vine motifs of the roundels, the technique is exploited in a different manner; a single and intense mark was made, and then the brush, laden only with water, was used to spread and diffuse that intensity around the edges of the mark, which seems to fade away.

ndigo was used, as before, to define the scroll-work of the green throne back. The outline drawing and the foliate detail of the motif were applied to the plain field of malachite. The dark, negative areas were blocked in with indigo; additional shading with thin washes gave more form and depth, and a contrasting opaque orange provided the final highlights.

In order to deliver a minute ornamental detail with precision, the viscosity had to be considerable. If the paint was too thin, it would disperse and spread on contact with the surface. Much thicker paint could form its own meniscus and stay where placed. The exact white dots of a miniature necklace stand proud of the yellow paint; the craters in their centers were formed by the loss of volume as the water of the diluent evaporated. This precision and mastery of detail is exemplified in the golden scroll-work of the yellow drapery, in which the folds, panels, and even the stitch marks of the red garment have been exquisitely rendered. The portrayal of Vaishravana in the lower register, second figure from the left] invokes another reference; it is by intent rather than through error, surely, that the yellow of the face is lighter than that of the body. Might this be an echo of the practice, in gilt-bronze sculpture, of overpainting the face in "cold" gold, the powdered and glue-bound gold used in painting?

>The golden flames of the lower register have a thin glaze of red over them. In other instances, notably on the gilded relief Ornament, the raised gold and silver in the portrait of Kunga Nyingpo, the presence of a resinous glaze was found. This was used less to modify the color than to protect the surface and perhaps prevent the oxidation of the silver to black, a common practice in the final prepara-tion of gilded book covers, particularly since they would be frequently handled.

The raised droplets of gold, so abundantly distributed throughout the painting of the Hierarch, were applied toward the end of its execution. This can be noted where some have become detached. The exposed under layer can be seen to have been already painted in red, green, or blue, as in the alternating sequence of other painted jewelry. Such a practice makes sound sense, for it would have been almost impossible to locate with exactitude the myriad droplets of colored ground onto a surface where the composition was only a basic outline. The painting had to be well-established before such accuracy and refinement could be introduced. Astonishing control and judgment would have been required, as the fluidity and the amount of the mixture on the brush would dictate the size of the droplet delivered to the surface; to achieve the range yet regularity in the size and volume of the raised droplets demanded particular skill. The colored nature of the ground induces a warmth of tone in the gold, which was burnished to a high degree, imparting to the painting the quality of a jewel.

If such adaptations of an already sophisticated technique could occur within perhaps fifty or seventy-five years, the changes over the next two centuries should be no surprise. The early evolution, exemplified in the widespread and subtle use of glaze technique, was to be superseded by a fundamental expansion of the palette: not by the introduction of new pigments, for there were none, but by the admixture of tints and the Variation of tonal grades. The palette of the early fifteenth Century had a deeper resonance and intensity of color, which precluded similar glazed layers; glazes had to be laid upon lighter colors to be effective in color modification, but they could be used to deepen and enrich decorative devices. The Portrait of a Buddhist Hierarch employs such a palette of opaque, saturated, and dense colors, with many more mixtures and shades.

The introduction of landscape into the pictorial space, for instance, required a variety of tints of green and blue; unfamiliar colors were introduced for the increasingly elaborate motifs, clouds, birds, and flowers and the more complex and flamboyant drapery. Preparations all had to be premixed and applied directly from the Container as an even flat coating. On this were laid the decorative linear designs, the definition of the drapery and figures, and the shading and the deepening glazes over pink and red. The majority of the red areas were covered with a single and continuous glaze, rich in medium, decorated with a pattern now sometimes indecipherable. Most of the other decoration and definition are rendered in black, regardless of the base color.

With so many hues, the sequence of painting would be hard to determine, but the Portrait of a Buddhist Hierarch underwent considerable revision during the process of its creation, even a change in sect, or at least hat; yellow can be noted in the flaked losses of the red of his cap. Other passages and details have also been modified, but what circumstances caused such disparate alterations and who was responsible can, at present, only be an issue for speculation. The manner in which indigo was employed is closer to the technique of shading than to that of glazing; indigo was still used to create a gradient in volume and form, but it was less transparent. The lac in the lotuses of the roundels is a similarly deep and concentrated shade; however, in the pink lotus of the main figure the lac is thin and more a true glaze, although it is not to be found in the modeling of flesh or form in the figures. By contrast, the Nepalese artists responsible for the Vajravali cyclef which the Mandala of the Six Chakravartins is one, had not lost the art of glazing. The base palette, although saturated and opaque, is again simple, with passages much lighter in tone, which allowed the extensive use of lac. The minutiae of the details are testament to the ultimate control of the medium and the hand, as is the incredibly refined and intricate scrollwork to the mastery of materials and the technical excellence of execution.

The outer band of the roundel in the upper left comprises a sequence of colored segments: white, yellow, red, light blue, yellow, and again white; the flame pattern has been superimposed in lac, thus transforming the host color into deep pink, orange, dark red, purple, and again orange, while at the same time creating a continuous relief. The ring of dorjes and the innermost band are indigo and yellow with repeat designs highlighted in opaque yellow, modeled in relief with indigo. The circle and platform of lotus petals are defined by lac when over red and yellow and by indigo when over blue and green, accentuated with white. The intricate scroll patterns of the outer fields have been created with lac, leaving the tracery of the red exposed.

Such detailed mastery would seem to be a denial of the individual painter, but in an X ray, the personal and habitual brushstroke is revealed in the repetitive but expressive accuracy of blocking in the quadrant of uniform red; and in infrared, the apparently perfect transition of scrollwork from green to whitevand white to red is unmasked. The dark lines over the green are in black; they intrude slightly into the adjacent colors or are absent; in ordinary conditions the observer would not notice, as the depth of the red compensated in intensity.

Such insights may be found in each and every painting, not so much as indicators of technique and related style, but more the painterly touch of the artist and the nature of his paint. Even the final stages of transition, from the painting to the consecrated domain of the deities, may have their hidden secrets.

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