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Representations of monks, nuns, and members of the laity flourished in East Asian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. In pre-Buddhist Han China, portraits of exemplary figures past and present derived from historical, biographical, and eulogistic texts. Ancient Chinese concepts of portrait are encompassed by the words xiang (Japanese, ), zhen (Japanese, shin), and ying (Japanese, ei). Where a caption named a figure, both words and image called to mind the larger story of that individual; a likeness was not essential. Yet most modern definitions of portraiture mandate that the subject be an individual, and that the representation be based on observed reality. Within Buddhist contexts, the word xiang also denotes buddha images (foxiang; Japanese, butsuzō), as well as representations of local deities (shen; Japanese, kami). Combinations like zhenxiang (Japanese, shinzō), and yingxiang (Japanese, eizō) stress the importance of resemblance and truth, not merely to appearances but also to the spirit. Like devotional icons, portraits consecrated in formal ceremonies embodied the living aura of their subjects. As such, they too, served as the focus of offerings and ceremonies.

Lineages and patriarchs

In China early Buddhist portraiture featured genealogies or lineages that trace a particular history of dharma transmission. At the Kanjingsi cave chapel at Longmen (ca. 720–730), a procession of twenty-nine patriarchs of the "western lands" (i.e., India) carved in larger than life relief surround the central image of Śākyamuni. This artificial group, found in a text of the Northern Chan school, begins with Śākyamuni's senior disciple MahĀkĀŚyapa and ends with Bodhidharma, putative founder of Chan in China. Although individually lifelike and varied, these depictions recall the Han tradition of exemplar portraits. Lineage portraits, in both painting and sculpture, spread to both Japan and Tibet. In mid-eighth century Japan at Tōdaiji, the patriarchs of each of the six competing schools of Buddhism were painted on wooden cabinets holding sūtras promoted by each school. Zhang Shengwen's Long Roll of Buddhist Images (1173–1176, National Palace Museum, Taipei), painted for the kingdom of Dali in southwestern China, incorporated a succession of Chan portraits showing each master seated in a landscape setting. In Tibet, the founders of the four Tibetan orders appeared as the large central figure in thang kas (thanka; painted hanging scrolls),surrounded by smaller depictions of their teachers and Buddhist deities. No matter how convincing or lifelike, such images were imaginary and deified representations of semilegendary and long-dead masters created to legitimize particular lineages.

The impulse to remember and venerate the sanctity of one's own teacher led to the creation of individual portraits from life and the writing of hagiographies. Numerous Chinese tales and images exemplify efforts to preserve the corpses of venerated saints, both through natural mummification and a complex practice of preservation by desiccation and cloth soaked in lacquer. Corpses encased in such a coating, placed within sūtra-mausoleums or separate temple halls, became objects of veneration for both temple and pilgrims. The mummy of the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng (ca. 638–713) is the most famous extant example, while the life-sized hollow dry lacquer image of Ganjin (Chinese, Jianzhen; 688–763) may be an example of a sculpted image substituted for a "failed mummy." At Tōshōdaiji in Nara, Japan, Ganjin's portrait served as a relic of the strong connection between a revered teacher and his surviving students, as well as a portrait of the temple's founder. In the thirteenth century, Vinaya school revivalists venerated Ganjin as their patriarch and erected a portrait hall for the image. Many portraits of individual monks commemorate their leadership talents and patronage activities, as for instance Hongbian (late ninth century), whose clay portrait was installed in a small chapel at Dunhuang. Not a mummy, the image contained a bag of ashes, while a record of his activities was inscribed in a neighboring chapel.

A conflation of these strains of portraiture appears with KŪkai (774–835), who studied Zhenyan (Shingon Buddhism, Japan) teachings in Chang'an from 804 to 806. Kūkai brought back to Japan seven life-size individually painted portraits of his immediate predecessors that incorporated written biographies. After Kūkai's death, his followers added his own portrait to make a set of eight Shingon patriarchs. These paintings were copied and disseminated to Shingon temples throughout Japan, where they became an essential component in main halls and on pagoda walls.

Portraiture blossomed in thirteenth-century Japan as a result of an increased awareness of Buddhist history and fresh contact with Chinese teachers. Students of Pure Land, Vinaya, and Chan teachings brought back portraits of their teachers from China. These depicted formally dressed abbots seated in elaborate cloth-decorated chairs, holding attributes of their status and character. Often drawn from life, these paintings frequently bore inscriptions by the sitter. These individual portraits were venerated in Japanese monasteries, and when the subject died, they became the focus of memorial ceremonies. As the lineages of these teachers spread throughout Japan, copies proliferated. At some temples, separate portrait/memorial halls enshrined painted or sculpted images of founders. Perhaps the strongest manifestations of the lineage/memorial portrait tradition are the countless portraits of Chan abbots. Abbot portraits occupied central altar space in the various subtemples of Zen monasteries in Japan, where sculpted founder portraits replaced buddha images as the central object of devotion.

Donors and lay believers

Buddhist portraiture was not confined to representations of lineages, patriarchs, and abbots. In ancient India, famous lay patrons, both men and women, abound in illustrated narratives, occasionally with identifying inscriptions. Relief carved images of lay patrons also appear on the gates to stūpa mounds. While neither of these types of representation qualify as portraiture, they can be seen as precursors to donor images of royalty and prominent families found in the cave-chapels of Dunhuang and Longmen in China. At the Potala in Lhasa, a large ninth-century sculpted statue of King Srong btsan sgam po (Songtsen Gampo, ca. 627–649) suggests that the making of sculpted donor portraits may have been more common than extant evidence suggests. Many of the workshop-produced paintings found at Dunhuang depict generic lay donors, with space left to record names, dates, and vows. The genres of ancestor and commemorative portraits flourished in China long after Buddhism waned among the elite classes.

In Japan, however, portraits of the lay elite survive in considerable numbers. Numerous sculpted portraits of Prince ShŌtoku (574–622) at different ages commemorate his role in establishing Buddhism. The hollow bodies of the sculptures often contain copies of the sūtras he promulgated, as well as donations from patrons. Several pious emperors received the tonsure upon abdicating the throne; thus their portraits show them with shaven heads in monk's clothing. Their descendants enshrined these portraits in private chapels or in temples they founded.

Throughout Japan's medieval period, numerous portraits of the aristocratic and military elite were created at their deaths to be hung in mortuary temples (bodaiji). Documentary sources tell of painters summoned to sketch their likenesses, either before or after death. These sketches served as the basis for life-size portraits, usually painted but occasionally carved. Family memorial portraits also included representations of prominent women, retired empresses and military wives, and even boys who had died young. The portraits frequently incorporated written biographies or eulogies, or the Buddhist name conferred on the deceased. Although memorial portraits depict their subjects in finery appropriate to their station, such portraits were not secular in function or place of display. The families of the deceased provided material support, often including the personal possessions of the deceased, to these mortuary temples for memorial ceremonies as well as care of family burial sites.

See also:Arhat Images; Bodhisattva Images; Buddha, Life of the, in Art; Chan Art; China, Buddhist Art in; Japan, Buddhist Art in


Guth, Christine M. E. "Portraiture." In Japan's Golden Age: Momoyama, ed. Money L. Hickman. Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1996.

Levine, Gregory P. "Switching Sites and Identities: The Founder's Statue at the Buddhist Temple Korin'in." Art Bulletin 83, no. 1 (2001): 72–104.

Mori, Hisashi. Japanese Portrait Sculpture, translated and adapted by W. Chie Ishibashi. Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International, 1977.

Phillips, Quitman E. The Practices of Painting in Japan, 1475–1500. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Sharf, Robert H. "The Idolization of Enlightenment: On the Mummification of Ch'an Masters in Medieval China." History of Religions 32, no. 1 (1992): 1–31.

Sharf, Robert H. "On the Ritual Use of Ch'an Portraiture in Medieval China." Cahiers d'Extreme-Asie 7 (1993–1994): 149–219.

Sharf, Robert H., and Sharf, Elizabeth Horton, eds. Living Images: Japanese Buddhist Icons in Context. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Spiro, Audrey. Contemplating the Ancients: Aesthetic and Social Issues in Early Chinese Portraiture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Karen L. Brock


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por·trait / ˈpôrtrət; -ˌtrāt/ • n. 1. a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, esp. one depicting only the face or head and shoulders. ∎  a representation or impression of someone or something in language or on film: the writer builds up a full and fascinating portrait of a community.2. [as adj.] (of a page, book, or illustration, or the manner in which it is set or printed) higher than it is wide: you can print landscape and portrait pages in the same document. Compare with landscape (sense 2).DERIVATIVES: por·trait·ist / ˈpôrtrətist; -ˌtrātist/ n. (in sense 1).


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por·trai·ture / ˈpôrtricher; -ˌchoŏr/ • n. the art of creating portraits. ∎  graphic and detailed description, esp. of a person: it's part murder mystery and part portraiture through poetry. ∎ formal a portrait.


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portrait XVI. — F., sb. use of pp. of OF. portraire picture, depict (whence portray XIV), f. por- (:— L. PRO-1) + traire draw (:- Rom. *tragere, for L. trahere).
So portraiture XIV. — OF.


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portrait An orientation of a page in which the shorter side is at the top. Compare landscape.

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