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.
The second example at right is of Padmasambhava in standard appearance, surrounded by repeated images of Sengge Dradog, a wrathful form of Padmasambhava. In this composition the artist has chosen to add contrast and depth to the painting by alternating the color of the body halo for each of the Sengge Dradog figures along the horizontal rows.
An artist has several techniques for creating the secondary figures. All of the figures can be drawn individually by the hand of the artist, stamped from a wood block cut, or traced from a prepared paper template of the right size.
The purpose of compositions such as these, as one might imagine, is to create large numbers of the same identical subject or deity. This replication multiplies the amount of merit from creating a single holy image by a hundred-fold.
Paintings with repeated secondary figures are intended for both community and personal use and are generally created to overcome group or individual bad omens and misfortune. The creation of paintings such as these, and the specific subjects employed, are most often recommended by a monk or religious teacher after the performance of divination rituals.
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