Himalayan Art Resources

Painting Style: Yuan Period Art, Araniko School

Araniko School | Painting Styles

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Yuan Period Art, Araniko School Description (below)
- Araniko Stupa, Beijing
- Araniko Stupa, Wutaishan
- Hangzhou, China
- Yuan Gate (Yuntai)
- Masterworks
- Confusions
- Others...

Art Styles During the Yuan Period:
- Han art (China)
- Araniko School art (China)
- Tangut art (Xixia)
- Dali Kingdom art (Dali, Yunan)
- Tibetan art (Tibet & Himalayan Regions)
- Nepalese art (Nepal & Himalayan Regions)

During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) there were a number of different styles and schools of art in both China and in the neighbouring regions. Principal among these were the Chinese Han art, Tangut (Xixia) art, Dali Kingdom art, Tibetan art and Nepalese art. A new art style to flourish during the Yuan period was the Araniko School of art based on the works and influence of the Kathmandu born Nepali artist Araniko (1245-1306 CE).

Araniko, also spelled and pronounced Aniko or Anige, was thought to be a Newar who was employed in Sakya Tibet to help build and decorate the Lhakang Chenmo temple complex. In 1269, after completion of the temple he accompanied Chogyal Pagpa (1235-1280) to Dadu, China, where he found life long employment under the patronage of Kublai Khan (1215-1294) the emperor of China.

There are very few examples of Araniko's own work but there are examples of his style and artistic legacy that has been passed down through the Yuan dynasty and later. Elements of the Araniko School can be seen in the following Ming and Ching Dynasties as well.

Aniko is primarily remembered for his architectural achievements and for the creation of sculpture. A painting of the Emperor and Empress are attributed to him. The two known remaining works generally agreed upon are the White Stupa in Beijing and the Stupa at Wutaishan Mountain. It is also possible that Araniko oversaw the stone carved sculptural work at Hanzhou south of Shanghai.

- Araniko Stupa, Beijing
- Araniko Stupa, Wutaishan
- Hangzhou, China

The Araniko School of art blends Nepalese and Chinese aesthetics creating a unique new style under the broad banner of Himalayan style art. The Araniko works generally have a Buddhist or more specific Tibetan Buddhist theme. The most recognizable characteristics of this blending of styles are the generous use of flower motifs both as jewellery such as crowns, bracelets, armlets, belts and such along with textile patterns in painting and incising on sculpture. The flower motifs are distinctive and can also be readily found on Yuan period white and blue ceramics. Other unique feature are found with the folds of the garments and the double looped belt tied at the waist with the two strings hanging some distance below. This feature is very common on Chinese figurative porcelain ware of the time. Some of these floral patterns continued into the Yongle period but not to the same degree and emphasis as the Yuan period.

A few rare textile works and paintings are fine examples of the Araniko School but none of these can be positively identified as the work of Araniko himself. One of the most famous textiles is the Nila Achala, blue in colour, in a kneeling posture, believed to have been a personal object owned by Chogyal Pagpa. It was most likely created as a textile work based on an original painted 'tangka' model from Tibet. The Achala currently resides in the Potala Palace in Tibet, China. According to the 5th Dalai Lama's autobiography it was acquired in 1664 from the General Treasurer of Zhalu Monastery.

Two other textiles, both at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City display the same colour palette and floral patterns characteristic of the Araniko School. The first of the two is a Vajrabhairava mandala which also depicts two donor figures at the bottom left attired in Mongolian garb. The second work is a depiction of the Buddhist universe with the Four Continents and Mount Meru at the center. This example is very bold in not just borrowing and mixing styles but also including Han Chinese style landscape and placing them into a Nepalese Buddhist mandala composition. Extensive floral designs surround the circular depiction of the a world system - universe.

An assortment of small paintings in the Araniko School style are known in a number of museums, institutions and private collections. The paintings are created in sets and they all appear to be of the same subject despite being from a number of partial sets. The subject is the Fifty-one Deities of the Medicine Buddha Mandala. The figures include eight Buddhas, Prajnaparamita, sixteen bodhisattvas, ten gods, twelve Yaksha generals and the Four Guardian Kings (see a list of the fifty-one deities). Typically the small paintings are framed with brocade and then strung together from the top of the brocade and hung in small temples or chapels dedicated to the Medicine Buddha. Medicine Buddha was a popular theme in the Yuan period. It was a Tibetan Buddhist practice whose rituals were considered more exoteric in nature and suitable for display and performance in public temples and general gatherings. The works were actual paintings intended to be displayed and were not created as a series of initiation cards which have a separate ritual purpose. In the recent past the small paintings have often been catalogued in Western institutions as initiation cards despite being larger in size and framed with silk brocades or blue cotton cloth and strung one to the other.

The small Medicine Buddha paintings follow the example of the previously discussed textiles with floral motifs, textile patterns, colour palette and a blending of Han Chinese and Nepalese aesthetics.

As the study of Himalayan Style Art improves and broadens in knowledge it is very likely that many more examples of works from the Aranaiko School will become known.

Characteristics in Sculpture & Painting for Figurative Art:
- Principal characteristic: composition, colour palette, floral motifs
- Full bodied, well proportioned limbs & Torso
- Sung style hair knots
- Large pointed nose
- Neck scarf, thick & bold
- Ornaments, garlands, armlets & bracelets in high relief (sculpture)
- Top of skirt folded outward
- Belt tied with a double loop & hanging lengths
- Floral drawings/incising in distinctive flower patters
- Prominent lotus sculptural base with large beads, upper facing petals large, lower facing petals small (sculpture)
- Others...

Jeff Watt 12-2014 [updated 8-2017]

Additional Resources:

- Buddhist Initiation Paintings from the Yuan Court (1271-1368) in the Sino-Himalayan Style by Jane Casey.

- On Recent Attributions to Aniko by David Weldon.

- The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353.

- Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yuan Dynasty (Ceramics).

- A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics. Valenstein, Suzanne G. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1989).

- The Pilgrimage of Sudhana: A Study of Gandavyuha Illustrations in China, Japan and Java. Jan Fontein. The Hague Mouton, 1967.