SOAS University of London

History of Art and Archaeology

Arts of Tibet

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2022/2023
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2, Year 3 or Year 4
Taught in:
Term 1

This course provides an introduction to the predominantly Buddhist Art and Architecture of Tibet as well as to the methods and resources for its study. It focuses on specific aspects of Tibetan art and architecture which are not yet well defined in the available literature. In particular it critically examines the main phases of the development of Tibetan art, the development of the vast Tibetan Buddhist pantheon and the interrelationship of its deities, the relationship of imagery to textual sources, the analysis of the iconographic program of a Tibetan temple, and the definition of Tibetan artistic schools in art historical terms.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  • Use the most important resources for the interpretation of Tibetan Buddhist art and architecture, 
  • Reproduce the development of Tibetan art and architecture in its outlines and its relationship to the neighbouring regions,
  • Recognise and classify the most important deities of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon in their relationship to other deities,
  • Read the art of Tibet in terms of compositional principles, functional relationships, and stylistic attribution,
  • Critically review a publication on an aspect of Tibetan Buddhist art and architecture.


  • 2 hours per week

Scope and syllabus

  1. Tibetan Art – Foundations
    Definition of and scholarship on Tibetan Art; layers of Buddhism in the arts; deity families in esoteric Buddhism and their emergence; art of the Tibetan Empire, 7th to 9th centuries.
  2. New Fervour – Second Spread
    Revival of Buddhist art in the 11th century; Tabo Main Temple; relationship of early Tibetan art to the art and architecture of India, Khotan and China; Nyingma and Kadam Schools.
  3. Many Paths – Tantra and Mandala
    Prominent Yoga tantra themes; highest Yoga Tantras and its deities; mandala and its origin; mandala sets.
  4. New Schools – Worldly Buddhas
    Sakya and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism; teacher as awakened being; emanation, reincarnation and lineage; Tibetan scroll painting.
  5. Second Pantheon – Padmasambhava
    Emergence of Padmasambhava; the many faces of Padmasambhava; local deities and their conversion; encyclopaedic monuments.
  6. Regional Styles – Fifteenths Century
    Tsongkhapa and the emergence of the Gelug School; regional styles in the early fifteenth century; art of Gyantse, the Guge kingdom and Mustang.
  7. New Stage – Emergence of Landscape
    Yongle Emperor and Himalayan art; landscape in Arhat paintings and beyond; emergence of Tibetan artists and connoisseurship;  artistic styles aligned with schools.
  8. Divine Mansion – Potala Palace
    Rise of the Gelug School; the Great Fifth Dalai Lama and his Regent; history of the Potala palace; Lukhang and Dalai Lama court art; canonisation of knowledge.
  9. Reincarnate Artists – Tenth Karmapa
    Artistic traditions of the Karma Kagyu School; the tenth Karmapa as an artist; Situ Panchen Chökyi Chungne and his compositions
  10. Diverging Goals – The Last Century
    Naturalism, propaganda and conservatism; tradition reflected; identity, response and the art market.

Method of assessment

  • One 750 word critical object analysis - 25%
  • One 1,500 word essay - 35%
  • One two hour exam - 40%
  • One 750 word critical object analysis - 25%
  • One 1,750 word essay - 35%
  • One two hour exam - 40%

Suggested reading

  • Berger, Patricia Ann. 2003. Empire of emptiness : Buddhist art and political authority in Qing China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Brauen, Martin. 1997. The Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism. London: Serindia Publications.
  • Heller, Amy. 1999. Tibetan Art. Tracing the development of spiritual ideals and art in Tibet 600–2000 A.D. Milano: Jaca Book.
  • Konchog Lhadrepa, and Charlotte Davis. 2017. The Art of Awakening: A User’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Art and Practice. Boulder: Snow Lion Publications.
  • Kapstein, Matthew T. 2006. The Tibetans. Edited by T. Kapstein Matthew. Malden, Mass. [u.a.]: Blackwell.
  • Jackson, David Paul, Janice A. Jackson, and Robert Beer. 1988. Tibetan Thangka painting : methods & materials. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications.
  • Snellgrove, David L. 1987. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Indian Buddhists and their Tibetan successors. London: Serindia.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules