The vast majority of surviving artworks created before the mid-20th century are dedicated to the depiction of religious subjects, with the main forms being thangka, distemper paintings on cloth, Tibetan Buddhist wall paintings, and small statues in bronze, or large ones in clay, stucco or wood.
They were commissioned by religious establishments or by pious individuals for use within the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and were manufactured in large workshops by monks and lay artists, who are mostly unknown.
As Mahayana Buddhism emerged as a separate school in the 4th century AD, it emphasized the role of bodhisattvas, compassionate beings who forgo their personal escape to nirvana in order to assist others.
A common bodhisattva depicted in Tibetan art is the deity Chenrezig (Avalokitesvara), often portrayed as a thousand-armed saint with an eye in the middle of each hand, representing the all-seeing compassionate one who hears our requests. This deity can also be understood as a yidam, or 'meditation Buddha' for Vajrayana practice.
Vajrayana techniques incorporate many visualizations during meditation, and most of the elaborate tantric art can be seen as aids to these visualizations; from representations of meditational deities (yidams) to mandalas and all kinds of ritual implements.
These images represent the Protectors (Skt. dharmapala) and their fearsome bearing belies their true compassionate nature. Actually their wrath represents their dedication to the protection of the dharma teaching as well as to the protection of the specific tantric practices to prevent corruption or disruption of the practice.
Contemporary Tibetan art
Contemporary Tibetan art refers to the art of modern Tibet, or Tibet after 1950. It can also refer to art by the Tibetan diaspora, which is explicitly political and religious in nature. Contemporary Tibetan art includes modern thangka (religious scroll paintings) that resemble ancient thangka, as well as radical, avant-garde, works.