Monday, March 7, 2011

Mongolian Art : The Sravasti Miracle

The Sravasti Miracle
By anonymous artist 
From the cycle Fifteen Miracles of the Buddha
First half of the 19th century

In old Mongolia-a land of nomads, where there were few towns or large settlements-art and artistic crafts were concentrated in Buddhist monasteries. Among the samples of medieval paintings are the thanka icons executed on canvas. The painting of such icons required a special training. An artist's apprentice was supposed to master the complicated iconography of Buddhism. Thus, he had to know, among other things, the 1,000 burkhans (deities of the Buddhist pantheon), each of which was endowed with 32 principal and 84 secondary characteristics. Composition, line and colour had a definite symbolic value. The professional training of the artist took a considerable time. The technique itself was also rather complicated. To protect the canvas from the harmful effects of the changeable continental climate it was carefully grounded and coated with fish-glue or another organic glue. Then burnt alabaster powder was rubbed into the coated surface, and afterwards the latter was polished with a piece of hard chalcedony. At this stage the artist, with the help of a needle and a sketch for the future picture applied to the surface, incised its contour and filled it with powdered pigments. The painting itself was done in mineral colours, including powdered gold, silver and semiprecious stones. In style, old Mongolian painting is related to the Tibetan examples, one of the common features being the symmetry in compositional arrangement. The representation of the deity was conventionally placed in the centre of the composition, with the narrative scenes at its sides. The contours were clearly delineated, and the colours were brilliant and contrasting.
The thanka showing one of the fifteen miracles performed by Buddha in the Indian town of Sravasti demonstrates the artist's adherence to the medieval tradition of hagiographic icons. The subject of the icon is inspired by a well-known Buddhist theme- the Buddha's dispute with false prophets.

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