Reflecting Buddhism’s long history and expansive geographic and cultural reach, Buddhist art is rich and varied. As it turns out, depicting the Buddha and other elements in Buddhism has very specific guidelines.
Although Buddhism began between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha did not begin until the 1st century CE, and the quintessential visualization of the Buddha was not created until the Gupta Dynasty in the 4th – 6th century CE. From this aesthetic, iconic depictions of the Buddha to this day often follow 32 major and 80 minor physical features, called lakshanas, that represent inner spiritual qualities. They define things like how many teeth the Buddha has and what they look like, the color of his eyes and skin, the quality of his voice, and the length and position of his appendages and digits.
Tibetan Buddhist art which contains imagery of yidams, mandalas, and wrathful dieties such as dharmapalas from Tantric (Vajaryana) Buddhism and which also has been influenced by the indigenous Himalayan Bön religion is often vivid and elaborate compared to compared to some other art traditions. Public Domain Review recently featured from the Getty Research Institute’s collection The Tibetan Pattern Book of Proportions, a 12-leaf manuscript produced in Nepal in the 18th century and used in Tibet which contains iconometric guidelines for depicting the Buddha and Bodhisattava figures. The ink illustrations are reminiscent of Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man and demonstrate how meticulous and structured the seemingly free-flowing and Mandelbrotian Tibetan art actually is.
More information about iconometry in Buddhist art can be found in
- On the Bodily Proportions of Buddhist Idols in Tibet (1863) by German Tibetan Buddhist scholar Emil Schlagintweit
- Tricycle’s article “Himalayan Buddhist Art 101: Iconometry, Proportions & Guidelines”
- Buddhism Now’s review of Handbook of Tibetan Iconometry: A Guide to the Arts of the 17th Century
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Images: Public Domain, The Getty Research Institute