Subject: Repeated Background Figures

Repeated Background Figures | Art History Main Page

Repeated images surrounding a central figure are common in Himalayan and Tibetan art. The images of paintings found on this page are only a selection from some of the larger museum collections on the HAR website. The majority of such paintings are late productions, post 17th century. They do however create some confusion when looking at earlier, pre-17th century, paintings which principally employ the use of registers. A confusion over dating can arise when thinking that all paintings with registers are early and all paintings with floating figures and landscape are late.

Three general subject types are found when looking at Repeated Figure Compositions. They also correspond to an early, middle and late chronology in the development of Tibetan paintings. 1) Early paintings sometimes depict rows of identical Buddhas (along with other figures in the lower registers). The subject of these paintings are drawn from the Charya and Yoga Tantras where a particular mandala will contain the 1000 Buddhas. Although the imagery of the figures appears repeated, actually each of the Buddhas has a unique name and identity. Paintings such as these lost popularity after the 15th century. 2) After that time the subject of just painting the 1000 Buddhas as secondary figures in sets of five paintings became more popular. Again, each of these Buddhas has a unique name and identity. 3) After the 17th century it became far more popular to create paintings with repeated secondary figures that all have the same appearance, name and identity.

The central subject of post 17th century paintings can be almost any figure, a buddha, deity, teacher or wrathful protector. Sometimes even non-figurative stupa forms are used. The surrounding subject can also be a repeat of the central subject or another unrelated figurative subject. The consistency is in the surrounding figures all being the same. Sometimes each figure is drawn individually by hand but more often the figures are created from a wood block stamping the outline of a number of figures at the same time or some other such mold to replicate the outline of a large number of images quickly and then painted to a greater or lesser degree.

In Figurative Art these 'repeated background figure paintings' are the only late compositions to retain and promote the use of registers right up to the present time.

The purpose of such paintings is to create large numbers of the same identical subject or deity. This in turn multiplies the amount of merit from creating a single holy image to a hundred-fold amount of merit from creating a hundred auspicious images of the same subject. Sets of paintings with repeated images can also be found either identical in composition or with very slight changes. The sets of paintings can also be very large in format and intended to hang in temples, others are singular compositions for personal use and created to over come individual bad omens or misfortune. The creation of which is often recommended by a teacher (lama) through divination rituals.

The main characteristic for 'repeated background figure paintings' is the repetition of the same figure through the registers, top to bottom. Very occasionally there could be two repeated figures alternating in the registers (see example). These types of compositions can easily be confused with several other painting subjects that use similar repeated figures in similar registers. However, these subjects and these paintings are depicting unique figures each with a unique identity, name, description and mantra.

Subjects That Look Similar to Repeated Background Figures:
- One Thousand Buddhas of the Eon
- Thirty-five Confession Buddhas
- Tattvasamgraha Depictions of Deities
- Maha Vairochana Depictions of Deities
- Sarva Durgati Parishodhana Depictions of Deities
- The Four Transcendent Lords (Bon) & the One Thousand Enlightened Ones
- Others....

(The images below represent only late Repeated Background Figures where all the secondary figures are identical).

Jeff Watt 4-2012

Shakyamuni Buddha: Shakyamuni
Shakyamuni Buddha
Shakyamuni
Tara (Buddhist Deity): Green
Tara (Buddhist Deity)
Green
Padmasambhava: Longku Totreng Rig Nga
Padmasambhava
Longku Totreng Rig Nga
Padmasambhava: Longku Totreng Rig Nga
Padmasambhava
Longku Totreng Rig Nga
Manjushri (Bodhisattva & Buddhist Deity): Namasangiti
Manjushri (Bodhisattva & Buddhist Deity)
Namasangiti
Amitabha/Amitayus Buddha
Amitabha/Amitayus Buddha
Tara (Buddhist Deity): White
Tara (Buddhist Deity)
White
Padmasambhava: (Main Form)
Padmasambhava
(Main Form)
Tara (Buddhist Deity): Green
Tara (Buddhist Deity)
Green