SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

Critical Themes in Tibetan Art

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2019/2020
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 1

Tibetan Buddhism traces many of its artistic expressions back to South Asia, and this course is also designed to evaluate this claim on the hand of one particular theme that is ubiquitous in Tibetan Buddhist art and has its South Asian predecessors. While focusing predominantly on Tibetan Buddhist works and its diverse manifestations in art, literature and practice, the course also relates them to possible South Asian predecessors, to expressions in other Buddhist traditions of Asia, and to Tibetan and South Asian literature on the theme. Particular emphasis is given to the historical, cultural, and religious context of diverse visual expressions of the theme. In addition, the course explores select contemporaneous expressions and their sources, and where appropriate theoretical and methodological issues are discussed in depth.
All themes chosen for this course are presented on the basis of art historical and archaeological evidence and relate the theme to textual sources and religious practice. They are thus multi-disciplinary and highly relevant for both Buddhist and religious studies. Regardless of the theme chosen the course will introduce a wide range of deities of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, and explain their function and relationship to each other using fundamental Tibetan taxonomies. It also introduces several of the major phases of the development of Tibetan Buddhism, and relates the art to the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  • The main aim of this course is to support the student in developing a critical awareness of visual evidence as a source for the study of historical developments, cultural interrelationships and Buddhist and religious studies. Presenting an ubiquitous theme in Buddhist art crucial for the understanding of Tibetan Buddhism from diverse but interrelated perspectives, periods and cultural contexts communicates the complexities faced with research in Tibetan Buddhist art, the position of Tibetan Buddhist art within a variety of Buddhist traditions, some of the many possibilities of art history as a scholarly discipline, the present state of research, and the most important literature on it.
    With this course the student gains concentrated knowledge on crucial themes in Tibetan Buddhist art, their South Asian derivation, their diverse visual manifestations and their interpretations over time and location. At the end of the course the student should be able to demonstrate the ability to:
    • describe the discussed themes in terms of their main appearances and variations over time and location;
  • relate the divers manifestations of the themes discussed within the wider nexus of the development of Buddhism and Buddhist art;
  •  reflect and communicate the diverse sources pertaining to the themes presented and their diverse manifestations, the present state of research, and open research questions;
  •  evaluate scholarly positions critically, and to articulate and justify ones own  position within that debate.


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

Scope and syllabus

2015/16: Donors, Teachers and Practitioners
As readily acknowledged by the coinage of the somewhat misleading designation “Lamaism” for Tibetan Buddhism, knowledge of the role of the Tibetan Buddhist teacher and ritual specialist within Tibetan Buddhism is crucial for a deeper understanding of Tibetan art. The importance of the teacher accounts for a number of distinctive characteristics of Tibetan art, such as the location his representation, the importance of teaching lineages, the arrangement of sets of paintings, a special type of donor-teacher relationship promoted by Tibetan Buddhism, the depiction of the teacher as an awakened being and with the visual characteristics of the Buddha image, and reincarnation lineages. This course explores this theme in the wider context of the (self-) representation of those involved in creating and using Buddhist art works and monuments in both inscriptions and imagery. Questions discussed range from the role of donors in the creation of Buddhist art, to the emergence of realistic portraits in Tibetan art. Key art historical themes are portraiture and likeness, gender in Buddhist art and its creation, and visual expressions of distinction, succession, and hierarchy.

Method of assessment

  • One 1 000 words essay (worth 30%)
  • One 2 000 words essay (worth 70%)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules