(Editor’s note: DeeDee Wood is the store manager at Tharpe Antiques, in Easton, part of the Talbot Historical Society.)
A Tibetan thangka is a Tibetan Buddhist painting, usually painted upon silk or cotton.
It depicts a Buddhist deity, mandala or a scene, and is used for meditation, religious ceremonies, monastic student instruction, and in more modern times, decoration.
A central deity is very often depicted being surrounded by other figures with symmetrical composition.
Thangkas have their origins in Nepal, Tibet and China, and each region has artistic influence on the works of art.
Dating back to the seventh century, thangkas are a complicated religious art form, heavy on symbolism, geometry and Buddhist traditions.
Thangkas have their origins from very ancient traditions of early Buddhists.
They would create paintings on the walls in caves such the Ajanta Caves in India and caves along the Silk Road, such as the Mogao Caves in China.
The Silk Road caves had many of the first stored Tibetan paintings on cloth.
The thangka on cloth or silk developed alongside the Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings, which were mostly done in conjunction with monks and monasteries.
Research into thangkas is easier for academics in the field to conduct on these wall paintings, rather than ancient scrolls, as the wall paintings have survived better than a scroll.
The word thangka literally translates to “thing that one unrolls” in classical Tibetan language.
Most of the artists who made thangkas were probably monks, although there were also artists that painted the scenes and deities.
Most thangka artists were anonymous, as the depiction of the religious significance outweighed artistic recognition.
Some thangkas have recorded data on the back of them that will record a meditation image of a monk who made the piece if they had some notoriety.
The materials were provided to the artist by a patron, and the fee was viewed as giving a gift to the monastery for the creation.
Painting and artistic merit was viewed as highly valuable and a huge accomplishment for an ancient Tibetan monk.
Most artists spent years perfecting the techniques required to be an authentic thangka painter. Considered sacred, many of the deities represented are from enlightenment moments from ancient Buddhist scrolls and texts.
To depict a thangka is to depict sacred moments, stories and beliefs.
Thangkas were used as a teaching tool in the monasteries.
They often depicted the life of the Buddha, deities and enlightenment.
The Wheel of Life was also used in this teaching art form, and represented the Art of Enlightenment, or Abhidharma teachings.
Monks in the monasteries would use the paintings on cave walls as a teaching tool to the Buddhist traditional teachings, and thangka scrolls could be used to teach as well, kept rolled in repositories in ancient caves.
Antique thangkas and scrolls from more modern history serve as important teaching tools in the ways of the Buddha and his teachings, descriptions of important historical events, deities and their myth stories and devotional centerpieces of altars or ritual ceremonies.
Thangkas are used for prayer, and to request help from the deity that is depicted on the thangka.
The most important use for a thangka is to meditate, and use a vidam, or mediation deity, to bring a practitioner down the path of enlightenment.
Ritual and ceremony are very important in the use of a Tibetan thangka scroll.
Today, thangkas are reproduced over and over.
Originally, monks would paint them in sets, but many have lost their mate in the antiques market.
Many are put in bedrooms, places of meditation, and spiritual centers, used for devotional as well as having a decorative aspect to their purpose.
When used for meditation, many times the sitter focuses on the central deity in the scroll and tries to become a visual representation of that deity, becoming one, if you will, with the deity, for the puprose of internalizing the qualities of the Buddha.
Many people regard thangkas, whether they are real or reproduced, to be of a highly spiritual nature.
Thangkas are painted on silk, and sometimes cotton.
The thangka painting itself is mounted on a silk embroidery panel, and has a silk cover that can be rolled down with attached dowels at the top and bottom, to cover the sacred image of the deity while religious ceremony or worship is not in session.
They were also embroidered, painted on black backgrounds with gold relief imagery, and large thangkas were made for temples and worship centers.
Many range from about the size of an American portrait painting, to large ones that cover half a wall.
Most available on the market today are roughly the size of a cinema movie poster.
The paint consists of pigments in a water soluble medium of animal glue.
Mineral and organic pigments were and are used.
Many compare this process to a painting technique in European art markets as gouache, but the techniques are different for application.
Old thangkas have descriptions and mantras of the deity depicted on the back of the piece.
Sometimes antique thangkas are X-rayed to show the mantras being written by monks under the painting for spiritual and meditative purposes.
The composition of a thangka is often times geometric, as is the way in most Buddhist art, but often requires deep understanding of the symbolism involved to capture the spirit of it.
Thangkas are full of symbolism and stories.
Allusion is a key subject in the creation of these spiritual paintings.
The art is religious, so all of the symbols follow Buddhist scripture and understanding.
The artist is trained in not only skill, but knowledge, understanding and the strict guidelines that make up creating a proper, appropriate thangka for their religion.
There are rules in the Buddhist scriptures about color, stance, hand positions and specific traits that personify the Buddha and Deities.
Much study is required for the creation of these works of art, so that is why many artists were and are Buddhist monks.
Tibetan Buddhist thangkas have very early origins in the Himalayan mountain regions of Tibet, Nepal and China.
From humble beginnings on the walls of caves to give religious instruction, thangkas have become, in more modern times, symbols of enlightenment in a fast-paced world, spiritual guidance for meditation and works of art for decoration.
Given their powerful use of geometric symbolism and deep knowledge of religious Buddhist practices and stories, these artists of this ancient region created not only beautiful works of art, but lasting symbols of faith, understanding, compassion and the path to enlightenment through art.