Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this “Himalayan Buddhist Art 101” series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition.

This week Jeff shows us how to properly read a painting.

Reading a Painting, Part 1

It’s one thing to look at a painting with a large Buddha figure placed in the middle of an empty composition. But it’s quite another to look at a Buddha surrounded by hundreds of figures. Where do you start? How do you even begin to make sense of such a complex painting?

Actually, the method for reading and understanding the subject and hierarchy of figurative art is relatively simple. Once learned, it can be a lot of fun. To be able to read paintings there are only four simple guidelines, or rules, to follow:

1. Big to Small.
2. Top to Bottom.
3. Inside to Outside.
4. Left to Right.

Big to Small: look for the largest figurative element in the painting. It is almost always in the center of the composition or slightly angled to the left or right side. That large element will be the main topic of the painting. Everything else will be smaller and in ever decreasing size based on rank and order of importance.

Top to Bottom: the top of the composition has a higher degree of importance than the middle or bottom of the painting. Teachers and Buddhas are generally placed higher up. Other figures and deities descend down the sides of the composition with protector deities, worldly gods, and offering objects arranged closer to the bottom. Lineages of teachers are always shown descending from top to bottom.

Inside to Outside: it is very common to find paintings of Shakyamuni Buddha accompanied by the two principle disciples, Shariputra and Maugalyayana, standing to his immediate right and left. It is the same for other important teachers, who will often be depicted with their closest students close at hand. Deities are often accompanied by retinue or attendant deities. All of these secondary figures will be placed in near proximity to the central figure of a painting. Mandalas are always read from inside to outside.

Left to Right: this of course refers to the observer of the painting—you and me. For the observer of a painting, Shariputra stands to the left side of the Buddha, although from the Buddha’s point of view Shariputra is on the right. In Buddhism the right side always takes precedence over the left. Shariputra, as the principle student of the Buddha, therefore stands on his right side. It is more common, however, to reference the perspective of the observer—again, you and me. So whichever figure is on the left side of a composition, whether it be a human teacher or a deity and whether they are placed at the top, middle, or bottom, they have a higher standing than the figure opposite to them, located on the right side of the composition.

For an example of these four simple rules, look at the two painting examples provided. The first is a relatively simple composition of Panjarnata Mahakala. It should now be easy to read. The second example is of Shakyamuni Buddha with the two disciples, Sixteen Great Arhats, and then the complete life-story of the Buddha told in numerous surrounding narrative vignettes. This painting is a little more complicated, especially since there is the addition of the extensive narrative. Look to the colored schematic for a breakdown of the iconographic elements.

Panjarnata Mahakala

MahakalaMahakala schematic

Shakyamuni Buddha

BuddhaBuddha schematic


To learn more about Panjarnata Mahakala, click here and here. To learn more about Shakyamuni Buddha, click here and here.