Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tibetan Thangka Paintings

The thangka is a striking visual art form that originated in Nepal and later spread to neighboring Tibet along with Buddhism beginning in the 7th century A.D. (the oldest surviving thangka dates from 999 A.D.). “Thangka” means ‘that which can be rolled up,’ because it is a painted or appliqué image on a cotton or silk scroll. Thangkas typically depict Buddhist deities, stories or mandalas. They can range from a few inches in size to over 60 feet wide for giant festival thangkas, which are displayed on buildings or hillsides.

Thangkas combine styles and motifs from several cultures. Because they were first developed in Nepal, the style of the figures is Nepalese, though the measurements, costumes and objects are Indian (Buddhism originated in India). The background landscapes are based on Chinese art.

Thangkas were originally carried by traveling Tibetan Buddhist monks for meditation, teaching and ritual uses. They are still used for these purposes today, and as objects of devotion by lay Buddhists. Thangkas are also popular for use as spiritual protection for individuals or households.

Most thangkas are hung in monasteries or home altars. Occasionally they are carried in ceremonial processions. They are often commissioned by individuals or families for removing “obstacles” (such as sickness), to help recently deceased relatives to be reborn, or as objects for meditation and worship.

So, could (or should) thangkas be adapted for use by Nepalese Christians? I have no idea if they would even want to use them, but at least one Christian ministry has embraced them for the purposes of evangelism and teaching. I think the quality of the artwork in these examples is excellent, and have ordered my own copies (which are printed as posters). Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find out any information about the artist(s).

My preliminary thoughts are that thangkas would be very adaptable for Christian purposes, though the final form of their use could look very different from what western evangelicals might be comfortable with. But that is just one possibility; with sufficient co-creation between Nepalese and western Christians, thangkas could be used to glorify Christ and the Gospel in very biblical ways. It certainly would be exciting to see what the results might be.

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