Himalayan Art Resources

Sculpture: Portraits Page

Teachers Sculpture Page | Sculpture: Figurative Art Main Page | Painting Portraits

Portrait Sculpture Outline:

Portrait Sculpture: (1) Figure Types, (2) Types of Portraits, (3) Function of Portrait Painting, (4) Sets of Figures.

Video: Tibetan Portrait Art

(1) Figure Types:
--- Arhat
--- King
--- Lay Person
--- Monk
--- Siddha Figure

(2) Types of Portraits:
- Generic
- Distinctive Iconographic
--- Iconic Features & Characteristics
- Based on Life (True Portrait)
--- Copies Based on Life
--- Self Portraits
--- Ngadrama 'Looks Like Me'

(3) Function of Portrait Sculpture:
- Devotional
- Lineage Teachers
- Funerary

(4) Sets of Figures:
- Standard Iconography Groupings
- Lineage Sets


Portrait Sculpture:

True portrait sculpture should be a true likeness of a living person of the past or present. With regard to portrait sculpture in Himalayan and Tibetan style art there are no fixed rules, doctrinal requirements, or even individual traditions. The portraits, as the term is loosely used, can be of generic faces or any figure of a human considered to have been historical or even mythical. Figurative art and portrait art are terms that are often used interchangeably. Portrait sculpture whether a true portrait or a generic figure has in the past depended on time and place, along with the inclinations of the patrons and availability of qualified and talented artists.

There are four main topics:
(1) Figure & Facial Types,
(2) Function of Portrait Sculpture,
(3) Sets of Figures,
(4) Types of Portraits.

(1) Figure & Facial Types:

There are Eleven Figurative Forms (iconographic) in Himalayan style art. From the eleven forms only five are included in portrait art. The five are: Arhat, King, Lay Person, Monk and Siddha Figure. The six that are not included in portrait art are: Buddha, Peaceful Deity, Semi-Peaceful/Wrathful, Wrathful, Animal Headed and Warrior.

There are four types of faces that are typically found with portrait sculpture: generic, distinctive, portrait and caricature. The generic facial type is based on human appearance as found in the artistic traditions of Himalayan style art. The facial type is based on the blending of Buddha appearance and Peaceful Deity appearance. From that arises the five facial types found with portrait sculpture. For the arhat the facial features have developed into two basic types. The first is that of an old man with a wizened face generously marked with lines, individual character, often with a moustache, and older features. The first type developed in China and is based on the traditional appearance of the seven Taoist Immortals. A later Tibetan style of depicting the arhats is based on Indian models and presents them as more youthful, clean shaven and uniform in appearance. The King appearance is characterized by larger, more round eyes, a furrowed brow and facial hair such as a small goatee and moustache. The Monk appearance is clean shaven while the Siddha Figure appears more similar to the King appearance with large eyes and furrowed brow. King appearance and Siddha appearance is mainly differentiated by clothing and ornamentation. The facial features between the two remain very similar.

Distinctive faces are characterized by a special feature or element that can be related to a historical person or famous person from myth. Portraits should properly be based on real individuals of the past and present. Examples of distinctive faces would be Sachen Kunga Nyingpo - grey and balding, older in appearance, Dragpa Gyaltsen - brown curly hair, Marpa Chokyi Lodro - pronounced cheekbones, short upward combed hair, the 1st Karmapa - having a lantern jaw, and the 2nd Karmapa with a distinctive goatee, small and pointed. These examples are distinctive faces with standardized and recognizable features but not necessarily true portraits.

Portrait Faces, or true portrait faces, are not uncommon but are rather rare compared with all of the paintings and sculpture depicting religious figures. From the early days of the second millennium there have been paintings of eminent Kadam, Sakya and Kagyu teachers. The paintings characterized as Taglung style are often depictions of portraits of Pagmodrubpa, Taglung Tangpa Chenpo and Jigten Sumgon. Whether a sculpture is a true portrait or just a distinctive face can not always be known unless there is a supporting inscription written on the base or bottom of the sculpture or accompanying provenance information. Some examples of portrait sculpture are those of Lama Dampa Sonam Gyaltsen (1312-1375), Go Lotsawa Zhonnu Pal (1392-1481), the 5th Dalai Lama Lobzang Gyatso (1617-1682) and Jigme Lingpa (1729/30-1798). (See examples below).

Caricature Faces are a basic exaggeration of the prominent features and characteristics. Various broad stroke caricature faces were already commonplace for ethnic groups such as Indian scholars, siddhas as well as Chinese figures, the Sixteen Arhats and the Four Guardian Kings. The early arhat paintings right up to the present time were most often copying a Chinese Taoist model depicting the arhats as very old sages, wrinkled and grey, wearing Chinese style garb. The 16th century was the strongest period when caricature images were at their most popular with all of the five portrait subjects. (See examples).

(2) Types of Portraits:

There are at least six different types of portraits: Based on Life, Copies Based on Life, Iconic Features, Self Portraits, One of a Kind, and Ngadrama 'looks Like Me'. Portraits that are based on life characteristics can be either from first hand or second hand knowledge. Many of the characteristics for the iconic appearances of famous teachers such as Sachen, Tsemo, Dragpa, Dusum Kyenpa and Karma Pakshi are based on second hand information. Aside from the principal iconic characteristics of each figure mentioned above all of the other facial features are generic in appearance.

From the second hand information and the institutionalization of the principal single or multiple facial characteristics, true or imagined, copies based on life are made and re-made, again and again, over the centuries.

Most portrait sculpture are created using iconic features developed over time. In a number of cases the iconic feature might also rely on a hat or hand attributes of the figure, as well as lay clothing or monk attire.

Self Portraits are relatively rare and only a few are known to exist. The most famous artist that created at least three likenesses of himself is the 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje (1604-1674). However, only one of the three sculpture is so far tentatively identified. Other self-portraits are known through literature with the whereabouts of the works remaining unknown or lost to time.

Sometimes sculptural images are made as a one of a kind. Such objects are usually created for personal use as a physical support for a guruyoga practice such as Virupa, the yogi Milarepa or others. The form of Tangtong Gyalpo is commonly created as an auspicious beginning for new architectural projects, bridge construction or roads. A one of a kind sculpture might also be created to contain bones or remaining body parts after a cremation of a special teacher or religious personage.

A class of portraits known as nga dra ma which means 'looks like me' are objects created during the lifetime of the person depicted. These objects have met with the approval of the individual and are referred to as 'looks like me.' There are only a small handful of images that belong to this category. The majority of works reside in situ in the Himalayas and Tibetan regions. The sculpture are often made of clay rather than metal although both can be found.

(3) Function of Portrait Sculpture:

There are three main reasons for the creation of portrait sculpture: devotional, commemorative and funerary. Devotional portrait sculpture is commonly found with depictions of historical or current teachers that are employed in a guruyoga meditation practice. The most famous and early of these guruyoga practices were those of Virupa, Padmasambhava, Milarepa, Sakya Pandita, Tsongkapa, and others. Commemorative portraits include sets of lineage teachers and the common groupings of figures such as the arhats and early Indian teachers and philosophers. After the passing away of a famous teacher and following the funerary rituals and cremation it is sometimes customary to fill a certain number of portrait sculpture with bones and ash and distribute them among the more prominent of the disciples and students. The sculpture does not always have to be a portrait. It could also be a depiction of Shakyamuni Buddha, Vajradhara or a number of other possible deity figures of choice.

(4) Sets of Figures:

For the Sets of Figures there are (a) Standard groupings and (b) Lineage Sets. The Standard Groupings are the very well known sets of Indian figures such as the Sixteen Great Arhats, the Six Ornaments and Two Excellent Ones, and the various enumerations of the Eighty-four Great Adepts (mahasiddha). All of these have portrait faces in keeping with the generic facial characteristics associated with each of the Eleven Figurative Forms discussed above. Lineage Sets are a sequential group of teachers generally beginning with a Buddha such as Shakyamuni, Vajradhara, or a bodhisattva, often Vajrapani or Manjushri. The set then sequentially depicts the early Indian teachers followed by the Tibetan teachers. Sometimes lineage sets are sometimes abbreviated and only depict the most important three, five, or more, teachers. Examples of these are the Five Sakya Founders, Sachen, Tsemo, Dragpa, Sapan and Pagpa, or the Five Kagyu Founders, Tilo, Naro, Marpa, Mila and Dagpo. There are many such lists of Lineage groups and numerous sets of teachers. (See the Number Sets List: Teachers).


True portrait sculpture are rare but not uncommon. Only a few images are recognizable by inscription or by familiarity of features such as with the 5th Dalai Lama during whose time many portraits were created and recorded in various diaries and journals of the time. Many other so called portrait sculpture are copies of earlier works such as the with the 1st Karmapa and the facial characteristic of the lantern jaw. The reference to portrait sculpture in general is a very broad term which includes mostly generic figurative art. True portrait sculpture is very specific, individual and not always easy to recognize.

Jeff Watt 4-2015

See the article: About the portraits of Tibetan masters by Jean-Luc Estournel (February 28, 2021. www.asianart.com).

(The images below are only a selection of examples from the links above).