Himalayan Art Resources

Tradition: Gelug Keys to Iconography

Gelug Art History & Iconography

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Keys to Iconography Topics
- Hats, Gelug
- Tsongkapa
- Vajrabhairava & Protectors
- Shadbhuja Mahakala
- Shri Devi Magzor Gyalmo
- Three Protectors
- Refuge Field Paintings
- Confusions
- Others...

The most important keys to recognizing Gelug Tradition paintings are hats and wrathful protector deities. Gelug teachers almost always wear a yellow pointed 'pandita' hat made famous by the portraits and depictions of Lama Tsongkapa. The yellow coloured hat is particular to the Gelug as the red hat is to Sakya and the lotus hat to the Nyingmapas.

With painted compositions having multiple figures, primary and secondary, the teachers are generally located at the top of the composition, or top register. Aside from Tsongkapa and the life story painting sets of Tsongkapa, the incarnation lineages of the Dalai Lama and of the Panchen Lama are also popularly created. It is more nuanced and difficult to correctly identify each Dalai or Panchen Lama figure individually, however, if the hats are yellow then the painting is most likely to be of Gelug origin.

For the wrathful deities, a common Gelug iconographic composition is a central large figure of Vajrabhairava surrounded by the most important protector deities. Shadbhuja Mahakala and Shri Devi Magzor Gyalmo are the two most commonly painted protector deities of the Gelug tradition. The vast majority of known paintings for these two protectors are of Gelug origin (although not unique to the Gelug tradition).

Protector deities as secondary figures are generally located at the bottom of painted compositions. If there is a Shadbhuja Mahakala and a Magzor Gyalmo at the bottom, or the lower register, then the work is likely to be Gelug in creation. Again, commonly found at the bottom of a Gelug composition is the unique triad of three protectors, Shadbhuja Mahakala, Yama Dharmaraja and Vaishravana. This group of three are unique to Gelug iconographic compositions.

Refuge field paintings can be identified as to tradition by recognizing the colour of the hats worn by the lineage teachers. Refuge Field paintings, if not invented by the Gelug, are by far the majority of such works that are known and the Gelug examples number in the several hundred. This number is much larger than the refuge field paintings of all of the other non-Gelug traditions combined.

Being able to identify the colour and style of hats is the primary and most important key for recognizing a specific Tibetan Buddhist tradition in Himalayan art painting. To know and recognize the special protector deities of the Gelug is the second important key for identifying the tradition correctly.

Jeff Watt [added 2-2020]

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