Face Music - Mongolian art and artwork - History
  • History of Mongolian traditional art and artwork




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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 09-2014


Text in German

Mongolian Art
They include Ancient Art in Mongolia, from the Upper Paleolithic Period (40'000-1200 B.C.), the Art of the Steppes Empire (third century B.C to first century A.D.), the Art of the Mongol Empire (1206-1368), Buddhist Art of Mongolia, Art of the 19th Century, and Art of the 20th Century.

Ancient and Traditional Art
Petroglyphes from prehistoric time are carefully carved in canyons at the foot of sacred peaks in the Altai Mountain range in Western Mongolia (Rock Painting). Drawings were found carved and painted on rocks as well as on cliffs. The motifs are.animals, hunting scenes, and chariots. meditation and ritual scenes of tengerisme (shamanism) of an ancient people. These depict an ancient world dominated by deer, bears, hunters, wolves, and life stock. The engravings measure from a tiny argali sheep of two centimeters, to a life-size horse in full flight. The images are often cut through oxidized rock. Making use of the colors of different layers of the rock to make the carvings stand out from their surroundings. Petroglyphes in Bayan Olgii in Western Mongolia include an image of a deer attacked by wolves, hunting scenes and scores of wild animals. Others depict more domestic scenes of yaks dragging carts, the wheels and horses flattened sideways like hieroglyphs, and two-dimensional herders on horseback.

- see more information about: Petroglyps - Prehistoric Rock Paintings

Art and Artwork of the Great Steppe Empires
The nomadic tribes have been present for more than 20 centuries; they are called "the barbarians", and their history had a major impact on all the sedentary peoples that settled on the periphery of their grassland empires between the northern forests and the fertile southern basins, which have been inhabited since the Bronze Age (2000 - 1500 BC) by organized societies. These nomadic people, who moved herds and chose agriculture and a sedentary life, left bronze, silver and gold artwork.
The history of the steppe tribes is a very complex one. These tribes were always moving, sometimes over long distances, and their allegiances were short-lived because they were not tied down to any particular piece of land. The steppe people may be classified into three main linguistic families: the Indo-European, the Turkic, and the Mongol. It is also useful to trace the evolution of their religious identity among Shamanism, Manicheism, Nestorian, Buddhism, and Islam in order to understand their movements.

- see more informatin about: History of artwork of the Great Steppe Empires of Asia

Traditional Painting
Traditional painting includes paintings in oil, watercolour or calligraphies; or the people used oil colours on leather. The works took a determinedly nomadic view of the world, giving a typical interpretation of this narrative and everyday life. Mongolian painting developed from simple rock drawings to Buddhist art. The main theme of the paintings developed later into a fine art form.

B. Sharav for example, linked the old with the new tradition in his art. showing the Mongolian way of life with his famous work "One Day in Mongolia"

Calligraphy
In the present time calligraphy constitutes a very important form of indigenous art but is still relatively rare in Mongolia.

Khadag (with ornaments)
This is a ceremonial scarf, in Mongolia often blue, that is used to tie to sacred objects or to offer gifts to people or deities.

Traditional Wallhanging - Wall decoration
Handmade of felt, textile or in wool by traditional style.

Traditional Embroidery
Mongolian nomads not only decorated their dwellings, but also made pictures on silk and textile. They embroidered various small articles such as bags for containing bowls, tobacco pouches, etc. Hats, clothes and boots were also embroidered for the nobles. Besides this, religious books were ornamented and embroidered.

- see more information about - Ornaments of the Turk-Mongolian tribe (cloths, ceramics, handbags, tools etc.)

Traditional Sculptures
In Mongolia the balbal (stone man), called khuuni chuluu, are predated by bagan chuluu, spectacular deer stones from the iron and bronze ages. The stone pillars also seem to be positioned towards the East and feature exquisite carvings of deer with enormous antlers rolling down their backs and elongated snouts. The few deer stones that have human faces are amongst the earliest depictions of human beings in Central Asia.
The stones are as diverse as the Turkic people that carved them and the distribution shows how wide the practice had become by the 8th century. Originally preserved by awe and ritual, the statues are now permanently guarded but remain in situ "copper-gold" (in the Gobi region of southern Mongolia, Oyu Tolgoi contains in-situ metal "copper-gold").

Undur Gegeen Zanabazar, a prominent religious figure and famous sculptor of the 17th century, created 21 tare (consorts of Buddha), which show the beauty of Mongolian woman. Zanabazar laid the foundation for the depiction and praise of the human form in Mongolian sculpture. Metals such as brass and copper have been universally used in Buddhist art. Sculpture images for shrines in a Buddhist home or temple form a large portion in metal casting.

Traditional Carving
Artwork in silver, copper and wood. Deer carvings in rock constitute the historical monuments of ancient times.

Minor Art
Mongolians are an artistic race and have a tendency to decorate every item on their home, inside their ger, and on the trappings of their animals. This is demonstrated not only by their highly developed handicrafts but also by many folk sayings in which knowledge is demanded from men and manual dexterity from women.

The Mongolian national costume is a robelike garment called a del, that, like the Tibetan robe, has no pockets. The del is worn with a thin silk sash several yards long tightly wound around the waist. Attached to the sash are essential objects such as the eating set, tinder pouch, snuff bottle, and tobacco and pipe pouches. Mongols, like the nomadic Tibetans and Manchurians, use an ingeniously designed eating set incorporating a sharp knife and a pair of chopsticks, and sometimes also includes a toothpick, ear scratcher, and a tweezer. They are made of precious metals and embellished with semi-precious stones.

Decorations on these accessories often show a combination of Tibetan, Mongol, and Chinese motifs. The two major types of pattern in Mongolian decorative art are the hee (ornaments), "which creates the rhythm", and ugalz (volutes, scrolls), "which emphasizes the form. There are five types of Mongolian motifs:
- Geometric designs include alhan hee, or meander; tumennasan, or eternity pattern; olzii utas, or "happiness" knot; khan buguivch, or khan's bracelet; hatan suih, or princess's earrings; zooson hee, or coin; and tuuzan hee, or ribbon.
- Zoomorphic designs consist of hornlike and noselike scrolls; the four friendly animals (elephant, monkey, hare, and dove; the four strong animals (lion, tiger, dragon, and the mythical bird Garuda); the twelve Asian zodiac animals (rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar); and the circle made up of two fish (yinyang symbol).
- Botanical motifs are represented by the lotus (purity), peony (prosperity), and peaches (longevity).
- Water, flames, and clouds are shapes from natural phenomena, while symbols refer to the Soyombo (the Eight)
- Auspicious Symbols, the Seven Jewels of the Monarch, and the Three Jewels.

Many of these designs are of Tibetan and Chinese origin, but they merged with the basic Mongolian motifs into a rich decorative repertoire.

Many of these decorative motifs can be found on the embroidered cases for snuff bottles and they were kept in kidney-shaped brocade bags with a gathered top. It was, and still is, the custom to exchange snuff bottles when Mongolians meet each other. The sniff bottle are made of chalcedony.

The decorative repertoire of Mongolia is thus made up of Mongolian volutes and scrollworks, auspicious motifs from Tibetan Buddhism, and Chinese motifs such as show characters, dragons, coins, peaches, and bats.

- see more information about: Traditional costumes of Mongolia and Ornaments of the Turk-Mongolian tribe (cloths, ceramics, handbags, tools etc.)


Fine Art
Mongolian fine art has a rich history and reflects the people's life and labor. Fine art is one of the origins of any nation's culture. It is an aesthetic reflection of human emotions, imagination, artwork and handicraft.

Traditional Handicraft
- bow and arrows
- national wood toy
- solid silver immortality vases
- painting on burlap and burlwood
- figures in clay, copper, bronze and brass
- tsa-tsa or gau (portable shrines) in wood, clay, copper, carved in silver
- rugs or carpets - wall decoration

Traditional Ger (Yurt - the round felt tent)
These show outside hand-painted Mongolian / Tibetan design (ornaments), and on the inside there may be found traditional hand-made wooden furniture with painted ornaments (chairs, chests, and a table) as well as rugs or carpets (wall deocoration) and a Buddhist altar (shrine) with ritual items.

See more information about: Yurte - Ger - Tshum - Summerhouse


Dariganga craftsman are famous throughout Mongolia. Among their creations there are the omnipresent silver cups, saddles, steel (used for lighting fires with flint), knives, and decorative ropes.

English revised by Hermelinde Steiner

© Albi - Face Music - February 2006

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