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 tells us about repeated secondary figures, or background figures.
Repeated Secondary Figures
It may sound like an odd topic, but repeated secondary figures (or background figures) are important parts of the subjects and themes of Himalayan and Tibetan painting. Repeated, identical images surrounding a central figure are very common in this form of art, although they did not appear as a phenomenon until the eighteenth century.
The main characteristic of repeated secondary figures is the repetition of the same figure—Buddha, a deity, or a teacher—through the registers that run right to left and top to bottom around the central and larger subject of a painting. Registers are the horizontal and vertical arrangement of figures along either a drawn or imagined grid pattern, where each figure precisely follows a structured order. Sometimes even non-figurative forms such as a stupa are used as a repeated element.
The first image example at left is Shakyamuni Buddha, accompanied by his two principle students, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana, with a Tibetan teacher and a worldly protector directly below them. All of the remaining figures in the composition, neatly arranged in rows, are repeated versions of Shakyamuni Buddha. In this example the surrounding figures are a repetition of the central subject.
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