Situ Panchen

Scholar Situ Panchen is portrayed in a long lineage of transmitters of the Karma Kagyu Buddhist tradition.

Situ Panchen (hanging scroll from a Pelpung Set of Masters of the Combined Kagyu Lineages, Kham Province, Eastern Tibet), c. 1760s, pigments on cloth, 175.9 x 91.4 cm (Rubin Museum of Art, New York). Speakers: Dr. Karl Debreczeny, Senior Curator, Collections and Research, Rubin Museum of Art and Dr. Steven Zucker

Rubin Museum senior curator Dr. Karl Debreczeny and Smarthistory’s Dr. Steven Zucker look at a painting of one of the great scholars and polymaths of the 18th century, Situ Panchen. As leader of the Karma Kagyu school of Buddhism at a time of its near eclipse, Situ Panchen revitalized the arts of southeastern Tibet and wrote widely about the arts.

The Rubin Museum of Art has teamed up with Smarthistory to bring you an “up-close” look at select objects from the Rubin’s preeminent collection of Himalayan art. Featuring conversations with senior curators and close-looking at art, this video series is an accessible introduction to the art and material culture of the Tibetan, Himalayan, and Inner Asian regions. Learn about the living traditions and art-making practices of the Himalayas from the past to today.

0:00:06.7 Dr. Steven Zucker: We’re in the Shrine Room at the Rubin Museum of Art, looking at an important 18th-century painting.

0:00:12.4 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: This painting depicts one of the great scholars and polymaths of the 18th century, Situ Panchen, and it depicts him as one of the main transmitters of his tradition, the Karma Kagyu.

0:00:25.1 Dr. Steven Zucker: The Karma Kagyu is one of the main Buddhist traditions in Tibet, and this transmission goes back to the origins of Buddhism in India. And so imagine this as one of a set of 33 that trace Buddhism all the way back, so that you can see this unbroken lineage.

0:00:43.5 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: And that’s the purpose of sets of transmission lineage paintings, to trace the transmission of the teachings from the current holder of the tradition all the way back to its authentic origins in India. So we can recognize Situ Panchen by his red hat with notches in the side and three jewels, reference to his monastic seat, Palpung Monastery, “heap of jewels.”

0:01:08.5 Dr. Steven Zucker: I love the references to who he is. He holds a Tibetan pecha, and his throne is situated in this landscape that is reminiscent of the forested mountains near where he lived in Derge.

0:01:20.9 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: We can see that this painting was probably painted quite late in his life, based on his gray hair and sunken features. So this is not an idealized portrait, but attempts to capture the physiognomy of Situ.

0:01:34.1 Dr. Steven Zucker: He was a prolific writer. He assisted in the printing of important Buddhist texts. He was by all accounts brilliant and involved in numerous disciplines.

0:01:43.8 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: Including literature, grammar, medicine, and the arts.

0:01:47.4 Dr. Steven Zucker: He was also a painter, and here we are seeing a painting, not by him, but that references his contribution to reviving an even older painting style in Tibet.

0:02:00.3 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: His tradition, the Karma Kagyu, was being suppressed in central Tibet, and it is far off in southeastern Tibet in his native Kham region that Situ works to revive his tradition, both as a religious tradition and the associated artistic traditions as well. This artistic tradition is known as the Encampment Tradition, named after the Karmapa’s traveling encampment.

0:02:21.8 Dr. Steven Zucker: And by Karmapa, we’re talking about the primary leader of this tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

0:02:27.9 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: So the Encampment Tradition is especially known for these open, airy compositions. You’ll notice that there’s a suggestion of receding space with cloud and shrouded mountains in the background and these craggy cliffs with pine trees, which seems to evoke the landscape of his home in Derge.

0:02:45.0 Dr. Steven Zucker: What’s fascinating about this style is that it is inspired by two traditions: the Indic tradition, that of India, in its representation of the figure, specifically in the proportions of the human figure; but the landscape is inspired by the Chinese tradition.

0:03:03.5 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: There are a number of different painting styles that arose in the 15th and 16th centuries, which placed figures following Indic models in Chinese-inspired landscapes. But what’s especially distinctive of the Encampment Tradition are these very open, airy landscapes. So you’ll notice that the sky goes from an intense blue down to an unpigmented canvas down where you reach the clouds and the mountains, and this is not seen in the other painting traditions.

0:03:30.6 Dr. Steven Zucker: And if you look very closely at those clouds, you’ll just see emerging from them this marvelous dragon. And I love how those clouds are incredibly active and seem to sweep over those steep mountains. And then we have this beautiful cascading river that appears and then disappears and appears again. And it creates this wonderful sense of rhythm, but also of recessionary depth.

0:03:54.2 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: Another distinctive aspect of this painting tradition is rather than using broad strokes of a wet brush, they use the dry tip of a brush. So if you look at the clouds, you’ll see the back shading, or drop shading, where dry brushstrokes are applied behind the cloud to help them to pop out of the canvas.

0:04:11.6 Dr. Steven Zucker: The clouds really do push forward and help to propel the human figures forward as well.

0:04:17.4 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: Tibetan painting traditionally follows a hierarchy of scale, and so the central theme is usually the largest. As you can see here, Situ Panchen is much larger than the other figures and is placed centrally. And then deities, for instance, two tutelary deities that you see at the top, White Tara, who Situ had a special relationship with, but also is one of the longevity deities. And so her placement here also suggests a wish for the longevity of Situ Panchen by the artist.

0:04:46.2 Dr. Steven Zucker: But there’s a third figure at the top.

0:04:47.7 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: This is one of Situ Panchen’s many teachers. He’s a Nyingma lama from Katok Monastery, which is not far from Situ’s seat of Palpung Monastery in Kham, but Situ’s main teachers are not depicted in this painting because his main teachers were the subject of their own paintings. So if this is painting number 32, they would have been paintings number 30 and 31.

0:05:07.7 Dr. Steven Zucker: So we have to remember that we’re seeing this particular painting out of its context. This would have been one of many images representing this uninterrupted transmission of knowledge.

0:05:17.7 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: And this is the second-to-last painting. The last painting depicts Situ Panchen’s main student, The Thirteenth Karmapa, who was also an artist.

0:05:25.6 Dr. Steven Zucker: And we can recognize the primary figure as the Karmapa because instead of wearing a red hat with three jewels, he wears the signifying black hat of the Karmapa.

0:05:35.8 Dr. Karl Debreczeny: The black hat with the crossed vajras in the front is the badge of office, or the identifying feature of the Karmapa lamas. And actually, if you look at that final painting, which also appears in this Shrine Room, you’ll notice a figure holding up a mandala offering, and the artist has identified himself, Karsho Karma Tashi. It’s very possible that these two paintings are by the same workshop of artists. This is the primary transmission of the main teachings of the Karma Kagyu tradition. So monasteries of this tradition all across the Tibetan Buddhist cultural world would have had paintings like this, and so they were likely produced in multiples. In fact, even though the image of the Thirteenth Karmapa is the last painting in this set, later generations added to the transmission of their own teachers.

About the Rubin

The Rubin is a global museum dedicated to sharing Himalayan art through a dynamic digital platform, participatory experiences, exhibitions, and partnerships. Inspired and informed by Himalayan art, the Rubin invites people to contemplate the human experience and deepen connections with the world around them in order to expand awareness, enhance well-being, and cultivate compassion.

Images: Portrait of Situ Panchen (1700–1774), from a Pelpung set of Masters of the Combined Kagyu Lineages; Pelpung Monastery, Derge, Kham region, eastern Tibet; ca. 1760s; pigments on cotton; Rubin Museum of Art; C2003.29.2 (HAR 65279)

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Cite this page as: Dr. Karl Debreczeny, Senior Curator, Rubin Museum of Art and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Situ Panchen," in Smarthistory, April 9, 2024, accessed July 13, 2024,