Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Aphorisms for Himalayan Art & Iconography


Aphorisms and useful sayings regarding art and iconography. Some of the aphorisms below overlap between Art History, Religious Context and Iconography. ('Aphorisms are best when illustrated by examples.' BB).

Art Hack Videos:
- No.1
- No.2
- No.3

Principle Aphorisms:

- The Three Principal Trainings (Subjects) are: Art History, Religious Studies & Iconography.

- Art History is the study of the object.

- Religious Studies is understanding the meaning.

- Iconography is ensuring the textual & visual accuracy.

- The Four Things to Know are: Subjects, Sets, Styles & Religious Traditions. (Essay).

- The Study of Himalayan Art is the Twenty-line Formula. (List).
Art History Aphorisms:

- Composition first, style second, aesthetics third.

- Composition types are four: group, register, repeated and floating. (Examples).

- Figurative paintings (tangka) and mandalas are not objects of meditation. (Examples).

- Composition Styles are Four, Figurative Forms Eleven, Types of Deities Eleven. (Examples).

- Ground colours are four: multi, black, yellow, and red. (Examples).

- Half or more of all painting, sculpture and textiles are created as sets. (Examples).

- *Iconometry is a guide. Iconometry is not a rule. (Examples).

- Inscriptions on paintings can be front, back, textile & stick.

- Landscape has four types: minimalist, simple, medium & complex. (Examples).

- Motivation & function for the creation of art has seven types. (Examples).

- Not all Himalayan art is sacred. (Examples).

- Not all small paintings are tsakali. (Examples).

- Nepalese art is often dated, Tibetan art is rarely dated. (Examples).

- Painting & Textile sets are five: life story, lineage, tantric cycle, compendium & number sets. (Examples).

- Reading a painting: Big to small, top to bottom, left to right, inside to outside. (Example).

- Sculpture Sets are four: lineage, tantric cycle, compendium & number sets. (Examples).

- Tibetan painting has four geographic regions: West Tibet, Central Tibet, North-east Tibet & South-east Tibet.

- Tibetan painting has three chronological periods: early, middle & late.
Religious Context Aphorisms:

- Bodhisattvas always have peaceful appearance, but not all with peaceful appearance are bodhisattvas.*

- Buddha is known as an abstraction, appearance, without buddha appearance, people with buddha appearance, and confusions.*

- Deity names are often categories rather than an individual entity.

- Deity names can be different in each of the different traditions.

- Hat styles are four: pandita, fan, lotus and cap. (Examples).

- Heruka does not mean the same thing in every tradition. (Examples).

- Hierarchy, function and appearance - with deities - are three different categories. (Examples).

- Mahakala is not always a form of Avalokiteshvara. (Examples).

- Maitreya has three topics: Iconography, Posture & Attributes. (Examples).

- Not all buddhas (Buddha Appearance) are Buddhas. (Examples).

- Not all female deities are emanations of Tara. (Examples).

- Not all peaceful deities are bodhisattvas (by function or hierarchy). (Examples).

- Not all protectors are wrathful. (Examples).

- Not all wrathful deities are protectors. (Examples). (See Art Hack Video).

- The pantheon of deities is learned through the number sets. (Examples).

- People are not deities, but sometimes deities are people.

- Sculpture can be de-consecrated, paintings are not de-consecrated. (Examples).

- Shakyamuni Buddha in art has three topics: Appearance, Number Sets & Narratives. (Examples).

- Shri Devi is not a form of Tara. (Examples).

- Some Worldly Deities are considered Wisdom Deities. (Examples).

- Yama, Yamari and Yamantaka, these terms do not all have the same meaning. (Examples).
Iconography Aphorisms:

- All mandala paintings are charts but not all charts are mandalas. (Examples).

- Appearance (face & body) does not define function.

- Appearance (face & body) defines mood. (Examples).

- Body colours have meaning, but not always. (Examples).

- Boots generally indicate a Tibetan indigenous god or deity. (Examples).

- Breasts are not a useful indicator of gender. (Examples).

- Kurukulla is not always a form of Tara. (Examples).

- Males usually have a square face, females an oval face (after the 16th century).

- Peaceful Appearance, peaceful deities, peaceful mood and Bodhisattva appearance - these terms all have the same meaning. (Examples).

- Peaceful deities are not always bodhisattvas. Wrathful deities are not always protectors.*

- Peaceful deities all have Bodhisattva Appearance ( = Peaceful Appearance). (Examples).

- Square painted compositions (rectangular) of deities are not always mandalas.

- Three eyes do not indicate an enlightened deity. (Examples).

- Unique iconography generally refers to hats, protectors, symbols & characteristics. (Examples).

- Wings generally indicate a Tibetan indigenous deity. (Examples).

Jeff Watt 2-2016 [updated 5-2017, 8-2017, 9-2017, 10-2017, 3-2020, 8-2020]

* asterisk signifies that the aphorism has not been translated into Chinese language.