Woodcut Illustrations

Vol. 286/3, Tucci Tibetan Collection, IsIAO, Italy, Mahāmudrā Instruction manual, Chab rom phug (South-Western Tibet) 1515. Photograph by L&C Service
Vol. 286/3, Tucci Tibetan Collection, IsIAO, Italy, Mahāmudrā Instruction manual, Chab rom phug (South-Western Tibet) 1515.
Photograph by L&C Service

Usually, the first and last pages of Gung thang xylographs carry pictures of renowned religious masters and deities (le lha’i ri mo), colored or black and white. If we observe the various illustrations, we can notice the resemblance of their style. Artists who worked on 16th century illustrations of prints from this area seem to be associated with the sman thang pa sMan bla don grub’s tradition, which is called sman bris/ris, ‘the painting-style of sMan [thang pa]’. This tradition was founded in gTsang in the 15th century by this famous painter and in the middle of the 16th century it spread to the Gung thang area. Some artists who have been identified as followers of the sman bris tradition worked on the illustrations of 16th century Gung thang prints. Others are being identified according to a study of stylistic elements thanks to a collaboration with Dr. Filippo Lunardo.

Vol. 706, Tucci Tibetan Collection, IsIAO, Italy, The Life of gTsang smyon Heruka written by lHa btsun Rin chen rnam rgyal, Brag dkar rta so (South-Western Tibet) 1543. Photograph by L&C Service
Vol. 706, Tucci Tibetan Collection, IsIAO, Italy, The Life of gTsang smyon Heruka written by lHa btsun Rin chen rnam rgyal, Brag dkar rta so (South-Western Tibet) 1543. Photograph by L&C Service

We know that these artists were allowed to sign their work. This peculiarity was typical of the earliest stage of printing and is relevant for the identification of xylographs. By comparing the different signatures and patterns of carving, writing or drawing, it should be possible to learn distinguishing the diverse style of each artist. This should help us in identifying those who worked on xylographs that lack signatures and do not mention them in colophons.

Vol. 706, Tucci Tibetan Collection, IsIAO, Italy, The Life of gTsang smyon Heruka written by lHa btsun Rin chen rnam rgyal, Brag dkar rta so (South-Western Tibet) 1543. Photograph by L&C Service
Vol. 706, Tucci Tibetan Collection, IsIAO, Italy, The Life of gTsang smyon Heruka written by lHa btsun Rin chen rnam rgyal, Brag dkar rta so (South-Western Tibet) 1543.
Photograph by L&C Service

It seems that borrowing woodblocks from other works to illustrate a different text was common in 16th century Europe; something that is also claimed as true for Tibetan woodcut representations. It has been guessed that the illustrations could be carved on separate panels that could be fixed to the blocks and re-employed. This seems to be possible but, so far, the project has not found examples of the same illustrations in two different xylographs. I did indeed find very similar woodcut representations in different works, but some minor details distinguish them.

A study of particular elements which differentiate the styles of illustrations is in preparation. Authority files of artists who worked on 16th century Gung thang illustrations are being inserted in the database. These will be linked to the relative images.