Himalayan Art Resources

Teacher: Karmapa (Sculpture & Iconography)

Karmapa Art History

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Sculpture & Iconography Topics
- Karmapa Sculpture Masterworks
- Black Hats & Blue Hats
- Karma Kagyu Hats Outline
- Monastic Shirt (Rounded Edges)
- Monastic Shirt (Square Edges)
- Monastic Appearance
- Confusions
- Others...

Three Methods of Identification:
- Identification by inscription
- Identification by facial appearance & hand gestures
- Identification by hat style

The majority of the figurative sculpture images below have been identified as a Karmapa. Some of the identifications are based on written inscriptions identifying the name of the particular Karmapa. Other figures such as the 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa can be identified by the protruding lantern jaw, squinting eyes and a heavily furrowed brow. Karma Pakshi, the 2nd incarnation, is recognized by the small pointed goatee on the chin and the two hands extended across the two knees. The 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, generally has the same hand gestures as Karma Pakshi but without the facial hair and goatee.

The majority of Karmapa sculptural figures do not have defined and consistent hand gestures. Identifying the individual Karmapas is easier with painting because there is more consistency with gestures due to the early copying of painting styles, composition, iconography and the development of regional and sectarian painting traditions.

Aside from the obvious characteristics of the three early Karmapas, identifying as precisely as possible the hat style is the most important method of recognizing other important Karma Kagyu teachers from the Karmapas. Teachers of the Karma Kagyu Khamtsang Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism have generally adopted a 'cap style' hat for the principal religious hierarchy: Karmapa, Shamar, Gyaltsab, Nenang Pawo, Karma Trinlepa, and later, the Tai Situ.

The Tibetan cap style of hat, also known as a 'Chinese officials hat' is small in size, with a general lack of excessive ornamentation or hanging side flaps. There is typically a jewel or gold finial at the peak of the hat. With paintings the hats are primarily differentiated by colour. The most famous cap is the black hat worn by the Karmapa line of teachers. From the time of the 5th Karmapa there were two styles of black hat: a simple traditional hat and and also a very ornate black hat. Other caps of the Karma Kagyu are the red hat of the Shamarpa, followed by the red, orange, and green speckled hats of other ranking teachers. Caps are also worn by Other Kagyu traditions, as do the Nyingma, Sakya and Jonang Traditions, but to a much lesser degree than in the Karma Kagyu tradition.

The sculpture artists are not always helpful in clearly distinguishing between the subtle ornamentation that allows differentiating between the hats of the three or four main Khamtsang teachers. Generally the black hat of the Karmapas has a double vajra on the front and on the two sides of the hat the tail of the cloud pattern trails forward. The red hat of the Shamarpas has three jewels on the front and the cloud pattern trails backward. The red hat of the Gyaltab teachers is also red with the cloud trail to the front. The red hat of the Tai Situ incarnations is is represented in art with jewels on the front and the cloud trail either forward or backward. A unique feature of the Situ hat is the clear feature of a divot on the right and left sides of the hat.

It is very likely that some of the sculpture below are images of Shamar, Gyaltsab and possibly some other early Karma Kagyu hierarchs.

Jeff Watt [updated 2-2020]