Understanding The Murals

finding a way through

understanding the murals

finding a way through
The Challenge

The project of painting anew all the missing parts was developed after a thorough study of the original wall paintings still existing in the monastery. Before any reconstruction took place it was crucial to understand how the pictorial cycle was conceived and organised by the XV century masters.

Understanding the whole iconography as much as possible and how the wall paintings space was logically planned would have helped to carry out the reconstructions of the missing parts of the pictorial cycle at their best.

More than half of the wall paintings are lost and there is no record of what there was and how was it painted, which made the reconstruction a real challenge. All the reconstructions had to be based on what was left and from the few articles written from Tibetologists and Art Historians.

The Space

Thanks to three nearly complete original sections of Thupchen wall paintings, two in the east and one in the west wall, it was possible to surmise how the XV century murals were organised. The space was divided following 6 horizontal modules, or registers if you prefer, as shown in the following picture and described below, running all along the four walls.

The main idea was to use the original XV century paintings as a source for reproducing in life-size scale all the missing parts of main deities, figures and decorative patterns. To avoid that the new paintings were just a repetitive copy of the original murals, some decorative patterns and fillers, such as flowers and atlases were copied from monasteries built all over the Himalaya around the same period as Thupchen and belonging to the same Tibetan Buddhist sect, in this case the Shakya.

the modules

A Brief Description

This module consists mainly in a representation of a blue sky background filled up randomly with clouds executed in a typical XV century Chinese style. At present there are traces left only on the eastern and southern walls.


This module consists simply of a long curtain meant to be running all along the four walls. At present there are traces left only on the eastern and southern walls.


This is the most important module within the pictorial cycle, the main object of worship for the local community together with the statues. The module contains a sequence of gigantic deities sitting on a throne with two attendants in a mirror-image position standing at his/her side. The 5 cosmic Buddhas depicted in a recurring sequence surround the deity and his/her attendants. Luckily the attributes that describe the Bodhisattvas and the positions of the hands of the Buddhas are all present, given very little to interpretation.


This module contains mostly groups of deities but unfortunately it is impossible to deduce the sequence of the missing ones. After a long photographic research on the Himalaya the remaining 17 deities of Thupchen were found in Gyantse Kumbum in Tibet. H.H. Sakya Trichen, former head of the Shakya sect confirmed the discovery and he then chose the missing deities from the same sequence of deities found in Tibet.


This module contains a religious writing in Sanskrit, known in Tibetan as "lendza". The original writing was chopped off in the past centuries for unknown reasons and only few traces are left on the western wall. If H.H. Sakya Trizin will find it appropriate to replace the Sanskrit writing, then he will decide what should be written.


This module contains a sequence of stories. Using the dimensions of the 5 panels left, the original space of the monastery and simple notions of geometry, it was possible to deduce how many panels were more likely being depicted in the monastery, that is between 100 and 108. This assuming that the area on the back of the main statues on the western wall was without any panel. Due to changes in the shape of the monastery during the centuries, at present there is space only for 92 panels, unless the local community will find the funding to restore the north wall as it was before. The photographic research on the Himalaya in 2015 shed some light on these stories as well. Some of the key stories still existing in Thupchen were found in a famous temple in Tibet, known as Zhalu. H.H. Sakya Trichen identified the remaining stories in the pictorial cycle of Rangjung Dorje's "The Tantra of Previous Lives" and he decided to those stories to be painted in Thupchen.

Image Name for Seo
Thoughts Over

The Project

Luigi Fieni

Let's underline that even though it is possible to guess what was painted in most cases, it is impossible to know how was actually painted. To be clearer, by knowing that below a Bodhisattva there was a throne it is impossible to know the shape of the leaves of the lotus or which alternation of colours were chosen. Or which patterns were decorating the throne, if any. While organising the reconstruction of the missing areas of the pictorial cycle, it became clear that suppositions of what could have been painted would have lead to personal interpretations.

It has to be underlined that, even where the pictorial cycle is clear and it is easy to surmise what there was before, the painting of new sections will be considered at all times a work of interpretation. The imitation of the old style and the old technique of execution of the new paintings will match the original XV century colours and style, thus completing the pictorial cycle, but it will be regarded (and it should be) as a new work based on an old style.


I would like to remind the purpose of this project: it does not aim to reconstruct the wall paintings as they were originally conceived because it is practically impossible, as stated several times before. By painting anew all the missing areas we are trying to restore the function of the monastery and bring the locals to use the religious building once again and keep their faith alive. We don't believe we are better than the masters who painted this masterpiece, as stated by some easy critics in the near past. We have a deep respect of the artwork and with our efforts we would like that such a masterpiece will not be wasted and left at the mercy of time.

If there is something I learnt in all the years I spent restoring religious artworks on the Himalaya working in very close contact with local communities in Nepal, China and Bhutan is that the local people will take care of their religious buildings and their sacred artworks when they can use them at their fullest. Sacred Images are not just representations but they embody "the soul" of the Buddha or the Bodhisattva depicted: sacred images become living deities and for this very reason it is not possible that a Pure Being be without a leg, and arm or a head.