Subject: Life Story Paintings Main Page

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Life Story Sets | Teaching Lineage Sets | Incarnation Lineage Sets | Miscellaneous Sets

Life Story paintings are compositions that pertain primarily to a single individual and depict a series of narrative vignettes in chronological order relating the [1] life story, [2] partial life story, or [3] significant life event(s).


Five Principal Topics of Life Story Painting:

1. The Subjects of Life Story Paintings
2. The Literary Genre (Basis) for a Life Story Painting
3. Composition, Layout & Presentation of Life Story Paintings
4. Lineage Painting Sets Including Biography
5. Transition of Life Story into Iconography


1. Subjects of Life Story Paintings: The two most common life stories to be depicted in Tibetan art are those of Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and Tonpa Shenrab, the founder of the Bon Religion. For Shakyamuni Buddha the subject of life story is further divided into three or four categories. The life story of Tonpa Shenrab is divided into two categories. The two founders are followed by the Eight Great Bodhisattvas, the Six Ornaments and Two Excellent Ones, Padmasambhava, and a few miscellaneous Indian teachers - scholars and mahasiddhas. For the important Tibetan historical figures there are many depictions of life stories such as that of Milarepa, Chogyal Pagpa and Je Tsongkapa.

2. The Literary Genre (Basis) for a Life Story Painting: There are many different subjects of Life Story painting in Himalayan and Tibetan art along with a large number of types, or genre, of biographical literature upon which each life story is based. The principal types of literary genre are: Biography (individual Life Story or Lineage Teacher compilation), Auto-biography (Rang Nam), Memoires & Diaries, Life Event (or Events), Hagiography, Path to Liberation (Namtar), Secret Biography (Sangwa'i Namtar), Previous Life Stories, Revealed Treasure (or Pure Vision), and Oral Tradition.

3. Composition, Layout & Presentation of Life Story Paintings: Life story paintings are depicted in several different formats. A story can be painted as an individual composition depicting the entire narrative on a single canvas. The story can be divided into sections and narrated using a number of individual compositions with the full set of paintings in total depicting the entire narrative. Life story paintings are also commonly depicted as murals in assembly halls or temples. (See Life Story Painting Sets).

4. Lineage Painting Sets Including Biography: Several sets of paintings include as a secondary topic of the composition the biography of the central figure portrayed. Examples of this type of combination of Lineage Teacher and biography are seen in Lamrim Lineage Painting Sets. (See the examples of Lamrim Set 1, Lamrim Set 2, and Drugpa Kagyu Lineage).

5. Transition of Life Story into Iconography: a number of popular subjects of life story paintings have transitioned from depictions of simple biography and narrative into easily recognizable iconic forms. These forms are then presented as clearly defined and described subjects of Guruyoga rituals and meditations. Iconic forms of historical figures are also used as chronological indicators representing a specific time, place and event in the biography. A series of iconic forms for a single historical figure are then substituted for the complete biography and acts as a succinct mnemonic device representing the entire life of the individual. Examples of this can be found with Padmasambahava and the eight forms, Virupa and the six forms and Tonpa Shenrab and the twelve forms.



(The six images below are only a small selection of examples. Each depicts a central figure with a complete life story in a single composition).

Jeff Watt 8-2012

Teacher (Lama): Shamarpa 4, Chodag Yeshe Palzang
Teacher (Lama)
Shamarpa 4, Chodag Yeshe Palzang
Shakyamuni Buddha
Shakyamuni Buddha
Teacher (Lama): Tsongkapa
Teacher (Lama)
Tsongkapa
Teacher (Lama): Dalai Lama V, Ngagwang Lobzang Gyatso
Teacher (Lama)
Dalai Lama V, Ngagwang Lobzang Gyatso
Teacher (Lama): Sonam Lhundrup
Teacher (Lama)
Sonam Lhundrup
Padmasambhava: (Main Form)
Padmasambhava
(Main Form)