fig. 1
Tibet

Introduction

In 1989 the National Gallery of Victoria acquired two nineteenth-century Tibetan scroll paintings (thangkas) depicting Tibetan Buddhist lamas: Yuntonpa with Begtse Chen (fig. 1) and Go Lotsawa Khugpa Lhatse handing down Buddhist texts to copiers (fig. 2).1 For translations, I have used the Tibetan and Himalayan Library’s Simplified Phonetic Transcription of Standard Tibetan (see David Germano & Nicolas Tournadre, ‘THL Simplified Phonetic Transcription of Standard Tibetan’, The Tibetan and Himalayan Library, , accessed 26 May 2014). The NGV portraits were gifted by different donors but, because of their great similarity in style, palette, paint application, size and fabric borders, seem to come from a single series of images of the incarnations of the Panchen Lamas. The provenance of each thangka is still undergoing research, and neither the works’ place of creation nor other paintings from the series have been identified.

Lineage portraits present specific visual dilemmas. They must convey spiritual and secular authority, present their subjects as both part of a continuing incarnation and as individuals, and function as both a narrative and an occasional focus for meditation. The subject of a lineage portrait is paradoxically separate and collective, sacred and secular, of a particular time and of all time. The way in which sets of individual portraits of lamas, exemplified by the two NGV paintings, attempt to visually solve these antithetical conceptual complexities will be discussed here.

The Tibetan word ‘lama’ means ‘none above’, or ‘superior’, and refers to a spiritual master, leader or teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The lama, usually male, occupies a central role in Tibetan society, and from the seventeenth century until 1959 the Dalai Lama, head of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, was also the temporal ruler of Tibet. Lamas may live in settled communities or monastic institutions and hold important and powerful roles within those societies; or function in different ways within the Tibetan Buddhist congregation as yogins, meditators or spellbinders, and not necessarily as ordained monks. The lama may perform in a variety of arenas – from hermits’ remote caves to large and powerful monasteries – and can specialise in subjects as varied as solitary meditation, tantric ritual, Buddhist literary scholarship, teaching, monastic organisation and political diplomacy.

Lamas, therefore, cannot be equated with monks or priests, but possess greater roles and powers, elucidated in images of Tibetan Buddhist hierarchs. Furthermore, in some instances, a lama connects the past with the present through reincarnation: an aspect embodied in the NGV thangkas. Paintings depicting lamas function on many levels, both spiritual and secular. Most importantly, as religious icons they provide a focus for meditation in active worship, enabling devotees to experience the divine through the image of the lama, who is considered one of the Three Roots of Vajrayana Buddhism.2 Deborah Klimburg-Salter, ‘When Tibet was unknown: the Tucci Tibetan expeditions (1926–48) and the Tucci painting collection’, Orientations, vol. 45, no. 1, Jan.–Feb. 2014, p. 46. Klimburg-Salter clarifies that in Tibetan Buddhist practice, meditation and ritual begin with two recitations. The first is the recitation of the threefold ‘refuge formula’, in which the practitioner dedicates himself to the ‘Three jewels’ of Buddhism: Buddha, dharma and sangha (the monastic community). The second is a dedication to the three roots of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism: lama, yidam (personal meditation deity) and protector of the faith. Such thangkas evoke and reinforce the significance and role of their subjects within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and reveal aspects of Tibetan history and material culture.

The Panchen Lamas

The subjects of the NGV thangkas are identified by inscriptions beneath each of the main figures and across the bottom of each work, as well as by the iconography and composition of each painting. Each lama is a precursor to the lineage of Panchen Lamas, important figures in the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.3 Tibetan Buddhism includes four main schools of teaching, the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug, each of which arose at different times in Tibet’s history. Although all adhere to the same fundamental beliefs, the schools are distinguished by doctrinal variations, the emphasis each places on specific texts and practices, and the way in which complex texts are interpreted through the oral teachings of a spiritual master. The Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism was founded in the fourteenth century by the monk Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), and after the mid seventeenth century was the dominant political power in Tibet (Françoise Pommaret, Tibet: Turning the Wheel of Life, Thames & Hudson, London, 2003, pp. 32, 41). Within this tradition the Panchen Lamas are regarded as the second-highest ranking lamas after the Dalai Lama, and are the abbots of Tashilhunpo monastery, near Shigatse, in the former Tsang province of central Tibet.4 I have used Tibetan rather than Chinese place names throughout this article, as the former are generally used in English language texts about Tibetan art history. Similarly, I have referred to locations using geographic descriptors present at the time the thangkas were produced, in the nineteenth century. ‘Shigatse, Tsang province, Central Tibet’, is used rather than ‘Shigatse, Shigatse Prefecture, Tibetan Autonomous Region’. Due to the name of the monastery, the Panchen Lamas were also known by early European visitors to Tibet as ‘Tashi’ or ‘Teshoo Lamas’.

The term ‘Panchen Lama’ came into existence in the seventeenth century when the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617–1682), gave the title to his tutor Lobsang Chökyi Gyaltsen (1570–1662). ‘Panchen’ means ‘great scholar’ and is a compound of pandita (Sanskrit: scholar) and chenpo (Tibetan: great). The role of the Panchen Lamas comprises spiritual leader, scholar and politician, and they are extremely influential figures in Tibetan society.

Reincarnation lineages and the Panchen Lamas

Successive Panchen Lamas form a lineage of tulkus (reincarnations) of the previous lama. Tulku (Tibetan), or nirmanakaya (Sanskrit), means ‘transformation body’. In Mahayana Buddhist belief, the Buddha appears in three trikaya (forms or bodies), the nirmankaya form materialising in the human world to work for the liberation of all beings from the continuing cycle of rebirth and suffering on earth. A tulku is the manifestation or emanation of a deceased master who may have died recently or centuries before, and who chooses to be reborn rather than attain nirvana (freedom from rebirth). Only those who have achieved a high level of spiritual realisation or awareness have the ability to decide where and when they will be reborn, rather than have this determined by their actions in the previous life. Tulku may therefore be equated with a bodhisattva or the Buddha. The former is a highly spiritually developed individual who remains on earth to assist all to attain enlightenment; the latter, in his previous lives on the journey to enlightenment, is understood to have been a bodhisattva reborn countless times for the benefit of others.

The spiritual lineages of different Tibetan Buddhist schools include not only historical figures, but also precursors and deities. The Panchen Lamas’ lineage includes both Indian and Tibetan figures, commencing with Subhuti – a principal disciple of the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni or Gautama Buddha – and including a king of the mythical land of Shambhala, one of the Buddhist Pure Lands.5 The concept of Buddhist Pure Lands is a feature of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. There are many Pure Lands, each one a place free of the suffering and impermanence of samsara (the world of the senses) while at the same time being undifferentiated from the world of birth and death in which humans live. The seeming contradiction implies that one’s experience of the Pure Land depends on the level of one’s spiritual development and incorporates the idea of the non-duality of nirvana and samsara. According to the Buddhist text Kalachakra Tantra, King Suchandra of Shambhala asked the Buddha how to combine his worldly duties with his Buddhist beliefs and practice. Ultimately the Panchen Lamas are believed to be incarnations of Amitabha Buddha.6 Amitabha Buddha (also known as Amida Buddha in Japan), Buddha of Limitless Light, is one of the five Transcendent Buddhas who developed in the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Amitabha Buddha rules over the Pure Land known as the Western Paradise, and in Tibet a form of Amitabha known as Amitayus, Buddha of Infinite Life, is worshipped. The relationship between a Buddha of Limitless Light and a Buddha of Infinite Life may be due to the origins and development of the cult of Amitabha in the north-west of India in areas influenced by Zoroastrian concepts linking light and life (David Templeman, ‘Amitayus’, in Jackie Menzies [ed.], Buddha: Radiant Awakening, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2001, p. 100). Other important lama lineages in Tibetan Buddhism include the Dalai Lamas, who are believed to be incarnations of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

Panchen Lama lineage paintings

Lama lineages are visualised in Tibetan art in several ways, including in ‘family tree’ paintings depicting all members of a lineage in one painting, and in individual portraits of lamas, pre-incarnations and deities displayed as a group. Each type usually illustrates the complete lineage, including the present or most recent incumbent at the time of painting. However, lineage portraits present difficult and particular artistic problems; namely, how does an artist portray an historical individual who is in fact a divine being, illustrious in a spiritual and worldly sense, and furthermore is a continuation of one who has come before?

Nartang woodblock prints

Extant series of Panchen Lama portraits can be read as a visual narrative presented in a series of separate scenes, much like a film strip. Strong graphic continuity is achieved through repeated elements of iconography, composition and style that, combined with unique features relating to each subject, convey the uniqueness of each Panchen Lama while revealing that each was in essence the same being as those who had gone before and those yet to come.

The immediate source of the visual lexicon of many sets of Panchen Lama lineage paintings, including the set that once included the NGV thangkas, is a woodblock print series made at the central Tibetan monastery of Nartang in the early eighteenth century depicting successive incarnations of the Panchen Lamas (figs 3 and 4).7 Nartang, or Narthang, near Shigatse, was founded in 1153 and was an important Gelug monastery and a centre for woodblock printing. Woodblocks have been the primary printing medium used to print religious texts and images in Tibet for more than 300 years. The source of the iconography of the woodblocks is attributed to the text Kuteng Rimpatar Jonpa.8 Giuseppe Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls, Libreria dello Stato, Rome, 1949, p. 413; L. A. Waddell, Tibetan Buddhism, with its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, and in its Relation to Indian Buddhism, Dover, New York, 1972, p. 236. However, it has also been proposed that the woodblocks recorded a set of paintings by Choying Gyatso (c.1615–1685), court painter at Tashilhunpo for the first Panchen Lama.9 The artist added ‘one later figure (that of the 2nd Panchen) to make the lineage full and thus bring it up to date at the time of the block carving. (The blocks were sponsored by the 2nd Panchen’s students and could have been carved either before or after his death in 1737)’ (David Jackson, A History of Tibetan Painting: The Great Tibetan Painters and Their Traditions, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien, 1996, p. 239). Furthermore, it has been suggested that the same artist may have painted a work that survives at Tashilhunpo monastery depicting the first Panchen Lama surrounded by precursors to the lineage, and that this painting may have provided iconographic and compositional guidelines for the woodblock print series and subsequent paintings.10 Himalayan Art, ‘Blockprints: Panchen Lama (Nartang Iconography)’, , accessed 17 Oct. 2013.

Regardless of the origin of the iconographic details, an examination of several Panchen Lama lineage paintings and embroideries dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveals that the iconography established in the painting of the first Panchen Lama and the Nartang woodblock prints was closely followed in subsequent depictions of the lineage precursors, including the NGV portraits (figs 5, 6a, 6b, 7, 8 and 9). Although Go Lotsawa and Yuntonpa are physically differentiated, it is unknown whether the depictions capture a real likeness. The consistent iconography and composition, barring some minor deviations, throughout the woodblock series and among different series derived from the woodblocks has served to depict the Panchen Lama lineage on several levels: as a discrete entity with a distinct narrative within Tibetan Buddhism, as a group of charismatic individuals, and as something that extends beyond this world and time to a divine realm of existence (exemplified by the Kingdom of Shambhala and the deities depicted).

     
     

In many Panchen Lama lineage painting series, the visual linkage of historical and contemporary figures, and of the human and spiritual realms, is reinforced by identifying inscriptions beneath the figures and descriptive invocations at the bottom of each painting that describe significant events in the lama’s life. The invocations also appear on the woodblock prints. The invocation on Go Lotsawa Khugpa Lhatse handing down Buddhist texts to copiers translates as:

The translator of the Gö clan of Tanag [a district in Tsang, Tibet, situated a few miles north of Tashilhunpo monastery], diffused the [Buddhist] teaching, relying on the protector of the Law, Drigug Gonpo [a form of the deity Mahakala, one of the dharmapalas or protectors of the Buddhist faith and the faithful]: he determined the manner of realising and explaining the Sangwa Kundű, being the first of Atisha’s disciples in Tsang [a province in Tibet].

The invocation on Yuntonpa and Begtse Chen translates as:

Yuntonpa overthrew the dregs [demons of pollution] and meditating upon a Jampay Shinjay Shay [a collection of rites of appeasement], bound to his alliance Gonpo Legden [a form of Mahakala], with his retinue and bowed at the feet of Jampa Senge Zurwangpo [one of his teachers].11 The translations are from Tucci, pp. 413–14.

These invocations identify the main subjects of each print and recall important events, relationships and teachings associated with them, thus emphasising their individuality and achievements while reinforcing the collective prominence of the lineage.

Although the inscriptions provide information, it is the visual elements of the paintings – composition, landscape setting and elements of material culture – that communicate most effectively, combining to present an episodic narrative that could be read by an audience (that, aside from the monks at the monastery where the paintings were held, was mainly illiterate) and/or viewed in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the dim, flickering light afforded by butter lamps.

Composition of the paintings

While the relative significance of the characters in the paintings is indicated by their size, each one’s position in the compositions reveals the individual’s role within the narrative. Important teachers, lamas and tutelary deities appear in the top register, while wrathful protectors of Buddhist law, or dharmapalas, appear in the lower register, all sited around a large lama figure. The visual narrative is multi-layered, portraying events both distant from and contemporary with the lifetime of the main subject, and conflates the worlds of gods and humans. Furthermore, the continuity of the lineage and direct connection between incarnations is visually reinforced by the various positions of the lamas which, when the paintings are displayed in their correct position within the set of lineage paintings, face the portrait of the current Panchen Lama in the centre. The inscriptions in black ink on small fabric patches sewn onto the reverse of the NGV thangkas – ‘right 3rd’ (Go Lotsawa) and ‘right 4th’ (Yuntonpa) – indicate the paintings were placed adjacent to each other, to the proper right of the central figure of the current Panchen Lama, at the time the paintings were made. The positions correspond to those in images in the woodblock set, with precursors, deities and Panchen Lamas arranged chronologically on the right and left sides (fig. 10).

In Go Lotsawa Khugpa Lhatse handing down Buddhist texts to copiers the subject is an eleventh-century lama who was a student of Atisha, a teacher of Khöen Konchog Gyalpo and the first Tibetan in the group of precursors to the Panchen Lama lineage.12 Atisha (982–1054) was a famous scholar monk from Bengal, India, who arrived in Tibet in 1042 at the invitation of Yeshe Ö, king of Guge in western Tibet. Atisha was instrumental in re-establishing Buddhist traditions in Tibet based on those practised in the great monasteries in northern India, including monastic discipline, the study and practice of tantra within monasteries and emphasis on the ‘the importance of practising the conventional Buddhist values and treading the long and strenuous path of a bodhisattva’ (Heinz Bechert & Richard Gombrich [eds], The World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson, London,1984, p. 260). Khön Konchog Gyalpo (khon dkon mchog rgyal po) (1034–1102) was a member of the Tibetan noble family of Khön and the founder of the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1073 he established a monastery in the region of Sakya, in central Tibet, which became the headquarters of the Sakya Order of Tibetan Buddhism. Since that time, the leadership of the Sakya Order has descended within the Khön family. He is depicted in the role of scholar and teacher, seated slightly to the left of centre, surrounded by manuscripts and engaging with a group of four monks who appear to be engaged in copying and proofing texts. A monk playing a qin accompanies him. The transmission of Buddhism to Tibet in the seventh century entailed the translation of Indian Buddhist texts into Tibetan and their compilation into the 108 volumes of the Kanjur, or Words of the Buddha as the Buddhist canon is known in Tibet. ‘The translators became revered as saints and copying was a work of merit.’13 Bechert & Gombrich, p. 240.

Other monks present in the immediate surrounds of the Panchen Lama are three diminutive figures in caves: one meditates, a second worships before a chorten (reliquary) and the third, in a meditation cape and with an alms bowl before him, sits in front of a pile of manuscripts. These figures may illustrate scenes from the Panchen Lama’s life or refer to aspects of monastic life in general. As well as these figures, the composition is embellished with four airborne figures that clarify the Panchen Lama’s spiritual lineage. In the top left corner is the figure of the great Indian scholar Atisha, wearing a pandita’s hat (indicating his Indian origins and signifying teaching), and making the dharmachakra mudra with his hands (a gesture indicating the turning of the wheel of Buddhist law, signifying his important role in early Tibetan Buddhist scholarship). Atisha arrived in western Tibet in 1042 and propagated the ideals that became the basis of the monastic style of Vajrayana Buddhism. He is included in the composition for his role as the root teacher in the spiritual lineage of the Panchen Lamas, and because Go Lotsawa was his first disciple in Tsang (as inscribed at the base of the image). Atisha is accompanied by a container of za-ma-tog (spiritual food), including discipline, teachings and comprehension, of the type often depicted with sages and saints.14 Valrae Reynolds, ‘From a lost world: Tibetan costumes and textiles’, Orientations, vol. 12, no. 3, March 1981, p. 20.

Next to Atisha is the figure of the arhat (a saintly person, worthy of veneration) Pagpa Düden, while in the top right corner of the painting is the deity Vajradhara, a representation of the Adibuddha, the deity incarnate in all the Panchen Lamas.15 The Adibuddha is the primordial Buddha, who is self-created and Creator of the Buddhist Universe. Although beyond all description and physical form, Adibuddha may be depicted in other forms, including Mahavairocana, Vajradhara and Vajrasattva in order to make him comprehensible to the human mind. He is depicted embracing his consort, Prajna, who symbolises transcendent wisdom. They are physically and spiritually united in the yab-yum pose, and together represent the complete realisation that comes from the union of wisdom and compassion. Below these figures is another arhat, holding a flywhisk made from yak tail hair and seated on a lotus-leaf throne. A female acolyte wearing a lotus-leaf cape kneels before him with an offering. In the lower left corner is the lama’s protective deity Gonpo Drigug, a form of Mahakala. His fierce aspect is indicated by his wrathful face, aggressive posture and encircling flames. The figure he tramples beneath him represents the aspects of existence that hinder progression towards enlightenment. Thus Gonpo Drigug is a protective deity for the faithful, and his anger is directed at their enemies.

Similarly, Yuntonpa with Begtse Chen adds to the visual vocabulary of the Panchen Lama lineage narrative. Yuntonpa (1284 or 1288 – 1365) was a disciple of Buton Rinpoche (1290–1364), a scholar, teacher and translator much revered by the Chinese imperial family. The painting depicts Yuntonpa brandishing a phurbu (ritual dagger) to conjure Begtse Chen in a cloud of smoke and flames. Begtse Chen is a form of Mahakala, one of the warrior dharmapala, guardians of the Buddhist faith who wage war against demons and other enemies of Buddhism.16 Eight in number, the dharmapala represent the malignant gods in Tibet who were defeated by the eighth-century Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava and promised to become defenders of Buddhist dharma. Other deities appear in their standard positions determined by their type and role in the life of the lama. Rakta Yamari, a form of Manjushri, for instance, appears with his consort in the upper left of the painting in the position of a tutelary deity, while a representation of Mahakala, Gonpo Legden, appears in the lower right section reserved for wrathful protector deities.17 In most depictions of Yuntonpa included in Panchen lama lineage series, Gonpo Legden is blue in colour, conforming to standard iconography. However, in this painting he appears red, a form usually called Begtse Chen.

When lineage paintings are displayed consecutively, the narrative unfolds from one scene to the next. The dramatic, performative aspect of the portraits is heightened by their landscape settings, dynamic composition and depiction of rich items of material culture. Together these three elements reinforce the spiritual hierarchy established in the paintings and, most importantly, evoke a charismatic aura that seduces and excites the viewer.

Drawing on the blue-green landscapes of Chinese arhat paintings introduced to Tibet in the sixteenth century, the portraits are executed in the Tibetan New Menri style. Maturing in the seventeenth century, this style incorporates paradisiacal landscapes painted in fresh colours and flooded with clear light in which natural and man-made elements, magical and mundane forms, combine. Although some of the natural elements, such as the peony blooms and fruiting trees, are realistically depicted and appear to be observed from nature, they in fact derive from a Chinese painting vocabulary rather than record the Tibetan environment. The landscape’s magical dimension is most pronounced in the blue-green hills, with their sharp contours, vivid colours and form combining convex, pouring waterfalls and protruding rocks and concave spaces revealing glimpses of the lama’s narrative. Minimal recession and varying scale in the landscape, its combination of naturalistic and stylised landforms, as well as figures of varying proportions amalgamate in a gem-like other world intended to ‘symbolise the harmony of nature and all its elements’.18 Pratapaditya Pal, Divine Images, Human Visions: The Max Tannenbaum Collection of South Asian and Himalayan Art in the National Gallery of Canada, National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, 1997, p. 55.

The New Menri landscape style has been interpreted as ‘a masterful artistic counterpart of the traditional Buddhist practice of the reconciliation of dichotomies (yamaka-vytyastahara) … a visual teaching, bypassing the difficulty of words, about the Buddhist insight into the nondual nature of reality’.19 Marilyn M. Rhie & Robert A. F. Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, 1991, p. 211. The artist has visualised nirvana and samsara as one, corresponding to the concept of non-duality, by integrating man (the lama in a particular reincarnation and his acolytes) and Buddhist incarnates, deities and protector figures within a landscape that includes naturalistic elements while evoking the Kingdom of Shambhala, a Buddhist Pure Land ruled by King Yashas, a precursor to the Panchen Lamas. The hill behind Go Lotsawa, in particular, recalls the description of Shambala surrounded by a range of snow-covered mountains, ‘pointed and sharp as teeth’20 ibid., p. 379. (fig. 1). By visually recalling the mythical kingdom and its link to the Panchen lamas, the artist removes him from a precise geographic and temporal location, and in so doing successfully resolves not only the pictorial dichotomy between the world of the historical individual lama and the ongoing existence of the incarnation series, but also visually melds divine and worldly realms.

For the devotee, the paintings communicate believed events and project a vision of nature in which ‘the earth is envisioned as being inhabited and animated, potentially dangerously, by beings visible and invisible’.21 Rob Linrothe, ‘Landscape elements in early Tibetan painting’, in Katherine R. Tsiang & Martin J. Powers (eds), Looking at Asian Art, Center for the Art of the East, University of Chicago Art Media Resources, Chicago, 2012, p. 174. The animation inherent in this multidimensional world is also characteristic of the Tibetan New Menri style. Figures busy listening, meditating, reading and teaching connect through their gazes, and gesture to one another – even the drapery seems imbued with movement. Tutelary and wrathful deities at the top and bottom of the paintings seem to slide horizontally in and out of the picture plane, and the main figures are barely tethered to the earth and their thrones, hovering in the mid ground. Strong diagonals within each painting, such as the slope of the mountainside, which is echoed in the outline of the Go Lotsawa’s left arm, add to the liveliness of the images. In addition, the blue-green rock landscape has been connected with ‘the use of concavity and convexity to create “momentum”, after the seventeenth century style of Chinese landscape painting associated with [Chinese artist] Dong Qichang’22 Rhie & Thurman, p. 211. (fig. 11).

The lamas’ central position within this magical, vibrant landscape serves to heighten the essential charismatic quality that sets them apart from ordinary mortals. The definition of charisma incorporates the notion of ‘compelling charm which inspires devotion in others’ and ‘a divinely conferred power or talent’, and has been studied in relation to Tibetan incarnates.23 Gillian Tan, ‘A modern portrait of a Tibetan incarnate lama’, in David Templeman (ed.), New Views of Tibetan Culture, Monash University Press, Caulfield, Vic., 2010, pp. 123–36. In its primary form, charisma has been described as:

The extraordinary quality of a person regardless of whether this quality is actual, alleged or presumed … the magical sorcerer, the prophet … are such types of rulers for their disciples, followers etc. The legitimacy of charismatic rule thus rests upon the belief in magical powers, revelations and hero worship. The source of these beliefs is the ‘proving’ of the charismatic quality through miracles, through victories and other successes, that is, through the welfare of the governed.24 ibid., pp. 130–1.

In the NGV portraits, the qualities and events essential to charismatic leadership, as defined and described above, are clearly visualised and reiterated through inscription, their dramatic power heightened by the magical environment within which they are performed. However, charisma eventually becomes institutionalised in order to survive and prosper, and in ‘Tibetan history, this crystallisation of charisma occurred around the system of incarnation, which eventually came to have foundations in both bureaucratic and legalistic authority’.25 ibid., p. 131. Institutionalised authority is articulated in lama portraits through depictions of objects indicating wealth and power, both secular and religious, including buildings, elaborate ritual objects and sumptuous robes of office. The NGV paintings include carefully observed representations of rich material culture, specifically in the form of magnificent textiles and lacquer ware.

The elite nature of these materials connected the political and bureaucratic power of the Panchen Lamas with that of the Chinese emperor, and reflected the relationship of the Yuan, Ming and Qing emperors with Tibetan Buddhism. Following the Mongol Yuan dynasty’s adoption of Tibetan Buddhism as the court religion in the thirteenth century, links between the Chinese court and Tibetan clergy resulted in the imperial ateliers producing many Buddhist sculptures, ritual implements, textiles, paintings and other works for use in religious ceremonies and as gifts for Tibetan monasteries and visiting Tibetan lamas. Red and gold lacquer throne backs, tables and footrests depicted in the paintings were among these prestigious gifts, and represent a Chinese style of lacquer ware popular in the Ming dynasty, particularly during the Yongle period (1402–24), in which a wooden form was decorated with incised and gilded decoration (qiangjin) (fig. 12). Chinese silk fabrics, including those incorporating gold, were deposited in Tibetan monasteries from the eighth century onwards and initially included textiles commissioned for Buddhist liturgical needs, as well as secular textiles gifted by the Tibetan aristocracy.26 John Vollmer, Silks for Thrones and Altars: Chinese Costumes and Textiles from the Liao Through the Qing Dynasty, Myrna Myers, Paris, p. 88. Chinese silk fabrics are depicted in the paintings in robes, manuscript wrappings and throne coverings combining gold thread in roundel patterns or bands – styles originating in Central Asia and Iran and made in China since the Jin dynasty (1115–1234)27 James C. Y. Watt & Anne E. Wardwell, When Silk was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997, pp. 107–26. (fig. 13).

Such items were presented to important monasteries in Tibet by the Chinese emperor and the court, and not only expressed the donor’s devotion but also bolstered the religious and secular authority of the recipient. The monetary value of such gifts, visualised by their fine workmanship and opulent materials, reflected and enhanced the wealth of Tibetan monastic establishments and the bureaucratic and political power that ensued from imperial Chinese patronage.

Conclusion

Tibetan lama lineage paintings function on several levels: as performative, narrative images clarifying the history of the lineage; as portraits of charismatic individuals; and as portals to a realm the devotee might experience through belief, meditation and ritual. The power and effectiveness of these paintings hinges on their evocation of the charismatic quality of individuals, events and places, achieved by protagonists’ placement within settings of material and natural splendour that are not time specific, but rather signify worldly and spiritual power. The paintings function successfully as ritual objects by resolving complex visual challenges and conveying their subjects’ secular and spiritual charisma and authority.

Carol Cains, Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2014)

Notes

1       For translations, I have used the Tibetan and Himalayan Library’s Simplified Phonetic Transcription of Standard Tibetan (see David Germano & Nicolas Tournadre, ‘THL Simplified Phonetic Transcription of Standard Tibetan’, The Tibetan and Himalayan Library, <http://www.thlib.org/reference/transliteration/#!essay=/thl/phonetics/#ixzz2hldcKnet>, accessed 26 May 2014).

2       Deborah Klimburg-Salter, ‘When Tibet was unknown: the Tucci Tibetan expeditions (1926–48) and the Tucci painting collection’, Orientations, vol. 45, no. 1, Jan.–Feb. 2014, p. 46. Klimburg-Salter clarifies that in Tibetan Buddhist practice, meditation and ritual begin with two recitations. The first is the recitation of the threefold ‘refuge formula’, in which the practitioner dedicates himself to the ‘Three jewels’ of Buddhism: Buddha, dharma and sangha (the monastic community). The second is a dedication to the three roots of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism: lama, yidam (personal meditation deity) and protector of the faith.

3       Tibetan Buddhism includes four main schools of teaching, the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug, each of which arose at different times in Tibet’s history. Although all adhere to the same fundamental beliefs, the schools are distinguished by doctrinal variations, the emphasis each places on specific texts and practices, and the way in which complex texts are interpreted through the oral teachings of a spiritual master. The Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism was founded in the fourteenth century by the monk Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), and after the mid seventeenth century was the dominant political power in Tibet (Françoise Pommaret, Tibet: Turning the Wheel of Life, Thames & Hudson, London, 2003, pp. 32, 41).

4       I have used Tibetan rather than Chinese place names throughout this article, as the former are generally used in English language texts about Tibetan art history. Similarly, I have referred to locations using geographic descriptors present at the time the thangkas were produced, in the nineteenth century. ‘Shigatse, Tsang province, Central Tibet’, is used rather than ‘Shigatse, Shigatse Prefecture, Tibetan Autonomous Region’. 

5       The concept of Buddhist Pure Lands is a feature of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. There are many Pure Lands, each one a place free of the suffering and impermanence of samsara (the world of the senses) while at the same time being undifferentiated from the world of birth and death in which humans live. The seeming contradiction implies that one’s experience of the Pure Land depends on the level of one’s spiritual development and incorporates the idea of the non-duality of nirvana and samsara. According to the Buddhist text Kalachakra Tantra, King Suchandra of Shambhala asked the Buddha how to combine his worldly duties with his Buddhist beliefs and practice.

6       Amitabha Buddha (also known as Amida Buddha in Japan), Buddha of Limitless Light, is one of the five Transcendent Buddhas who developed in the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Amitabha Buddha rules over the Pure Land known as the Western Paradise, and in Tibet a form of Amitabha known as Amitayus, Buddha of Infinite Life, is worshipped. The relationship between a Buddha of Limitless Light and a Buddha of Infinite Life may be due to the origins and development of the cult of Amitabha in the north-west of India in areas influenced by Zoroastrian concepts linking light and life (David Templeman, ‘Amitayus’, in Jackie Menzies [ed.], Buddha: Radiant Awakening, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2001, p. 100).

7       Nartang, or Narthang, near Shigatse, was founded in 1153 and was an important Gelug monastery and a centre for woodblock printing. Woodblocks have been the primary printing medium used to print religious texts and images in Tibet for more than 300 years.

8       Giuseppe Tucci, Tibetan Painted Scrolls, Libreria dello Stato, Rome, 1949, p. 413; L. A. Waddell,  Tibetan Buddhism, with its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, and in its Relation to Indian Buddhism, Dover, New York, 1972, p. 236.

9       The artist added ‘one later figure (that of the 2nd Panchen) to make the lineage full and thus bring it up to date at the time of the block carving. (The blocks were sponsored by the 2nd Panchen’s students and could have been carved either before or after his death in 1737)’ (David Jackson, A History of Tibetan Painting: The Great Tibetan Painters and Their Traditions, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien, 1996, p. 239).

10     Himalayan Art, ‘Blockprints: Panchen Lama (Nartang Iconography)’, <http://www.himalayanart.org/search/set.cfm?setID=3347>, accessed 17 Oct. 2013.

11     The translations are from Tucci, pp. 413–14.

12     Atisha (982–1054) was a famous scholar monk from Bengal, India, who arrived in Tibet in 1042 at the invitation of Yeshe Ö, king of Guge in western Tibet. Atisha was instrumental in re-establishing Buddhist traditions in Tibet based on those practised in the great monasteries in northern India, including monastic discipline, the study and practice of tantra within monasteries and emphasis on the ‘the importance of practising the conventional Buddhist values and treading the long and strenuous path of a bodhisattva’ (Heinz Bechert & Richard Gombrich [eds], The World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson, London,1984, p. 260). Khön Konchog Gyalpo (khon dkon mchog rgyal po) (1034–1102) was a member of the Tibetan noble family of Khön and the founder of the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.In 1073 he established a monastery in the region of Sakya, in central Tibet, which became the headquarters of the Sakya Order of Tibetan Buddhism. Since that time, the leadership of the Sakya Order has descended within the Khön family.

13     Bechert & Gombrich, p. 240.

14     Valrae Reynolds, ‘From a lost world: Tibetan costumes and textiles’, Orientations, vol. 12, no. 3, March 1981, p. 20.

15     The Adibuddha is the primordial Buddha, who is self-created and Creator of the Buddhist Universe. Although beyond all description and physical form, Adibuddha may be depicted in other forms, including Mahavairocana, Vajradhara and Vajrasattva in order to make him comprehensible to the human mind. He is depicted embracing his consort, Prajna, who symbolises transcendent wisdom. They are physically and spiritually united in the yab-yum pose, and together represent the complete realisation that comes from the union of wisdom and compassion.

16     Eight in number, the dharmapala represent the malignant gods in Tibet who were defeated by the eighth-century Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava and promised to become defenders of Buddhist dharma.

17     In most depictions of Yuntonpa included in Panchen lama lineage series, Gonpo Legden is blue in colour, conforming to standard iconography. However, in this painting he appears red, a form usually called Begtse Chen.

18     Pratapaditya Pal, Divine Images, Human Visions: The Max Tannenbaum Collection of South Asian and Himalayan Art in the National Gallery of Canada, National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, 1997, p. 55.

19     Marilyn M. Rhie & Robert A. F. Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, 1991, p. 211.

20     ibid., p. 379.

21     Rob Linrothe, ‘Landscape elements in early Tibetan painting’, in Katherine R. Tsiang & Martin J. Powers (eds), Looking at Asian Art, Center for the Art of the East, University of Chicago Art Media Resources, Chicago, 2012, p. 174.

22     Rhie & Thurman, p. 211.

23     Gillian Tan, ‘A modern portrait of a Tibetan incarnate lama’, in David Templeman (ed.), New Views of Tibetan Culture, Monash University Press, Caulfield, Vic., 2010, pp. 123–36.

24     ibid., pp. 130–1.

25     ibid., p. 131.

26     John Vollmer, Silks for Thrones and Altars: Chinese Costumes and Textiles from the Liao Through the Qing Dynasty, Myrna Myers, Paris, p. 88.

27     James C. Y. Watt & Anne E. Wardwell, When Silk was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997, pp. 107–26.