Siddha holds left hand to back of head as he floats above rocky landscape dotted with buildings and groups of figures

Milarepa and Scenes from His Life


18th century

Pigments on cloth

Catalog Number
C2006.66.174 (HAR 183)

Rubin Museum of Art

Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin

This painting tells a story of the eleventh-century Tibetan poet-yogi Milarepa. In every culture historical figures are often transformed into characters of mythic dimension through stories of their deeds and the power of literature. Although Milarepa’s legendary life story of hardship, strife, magical powers, disillusionment, and perseverance to achieve liberation is known across all Tibetan Buddhist traditions, there is no historical certainty about his birth, activities, and death. His biography is presented in the fifteenth-century writing of Tsangnyon Heruka (1452–1507). Yet Milarepa is better remembered for his impassioned song-poems (The Hundred-Thousand Songs). These texts form the basis of many paintings, such as this one, which simultaneously encompass religious instruction, folk tale, and biography.

At ease in a mountain cave, Milarepa cups his hand to his ear to catch the sound of his songs. Nested into the landscape around him are vignettes telling stories of his life. This painting was once part of a set and is the last in the sequence. The episodes move counterclockwise around Milarepa to culminate in the scene in the clouds at the upper left, where sky-walking deities take away the stupa containing his relics.

Related Theme