Buddhism Buddhist Art and Architecture in Mongolia
Isabelle Charleux
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0204


Mongolian Buddhist art and architecture were largely unknown in Western academic literature before the opening of Mongolia and Russia in 1990 and of China in the 1980s, followed by the organization of exhibitions of their arts abroad. This article maps out major resources on Mongolian Buddhist art and architecture, here understood as the art and architecture of the Mongolian populations who live not only in Mongolia (known as “Outer Mongolia” before 1911, also referred to as Northern, or Khalkha Mongolia) itself but also in China (mostly in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, or southern Mongolia) and in Russia (Republics of Buryatia and Kalmykia). The study of Mongolian Buddhist art and architecture is still at an incipient stage and reflects the compartmentalization between the Mongols of China and those of Mongolia and Russia, though exchanges between researchers are developing. Comparatively few artifacts have survived the migrations, nomadizations, and, above all, the destructions after the fall of the Mongol Empire in the late 14th century and the religious persecution and destruction of material culture of the 20th-century Communist regimes of Russia, Mongolia (1936–1938), and China (during the Cultural Revolution, 1966–1976). Old photographs and textual descriptions of buildings and artifacts are therefore important to complement our knowledge of this field. Mongolian culture has been qualified as “osmotic,” receiving, borrowing, absorbing, and acculturating foreign influences with great receptivity. But Mongols did not borrow randomly: they were eclectic in their choices, according to their own cultural norms and aspirations. This is obvious when dealing with art and architecture, where borrowings are sometimes so well integrated that they were forgotten, and nationalists now claim Mongols are themselves at the origin of some forms and motifs. Since the 1990s, interest in Mongolian material heritage has led to the development of projects of cooperation between Mongolia and foreign partners in the fields of archaeology, art history, survey and restoration of monasteries, and establishment of new museums. The volume of publications, especially of catalogues of private and public collections of Mongolian art, has recently increased, but large collections, such as those kept in Russia, have yet to be published, and many Buddhist statues and paintings still labeled as “Sino-Tibetan” in Western museums should probably be attributed to Mongolia.

General Overviews

No textbook is available in a Western language, but this gap is filled partially by a few exhibition catalogues under the category of “academic publications.” Heissig and Müller 1989 gives an excellent overview of material culture, with short essays on many different topics. Müller and Pleiger 2005 focuses on recent discoveries. Berger and Bartholomew 1995 was produced for a blockbuster exhibition and is now considered the best introduction to Buddhist arts of Mongolia in the modern period; it also served as a basis for the following catalogues. Famous painter, art critic, and curator at the Zanabazar Museum of Fine Arts (Ulaanbaatar/Ulan-Bator) (late) Nyam-Ochir Tsültem (Tsultem) published a selection of masterpieces from Mongolia in a well-known series of books on sculpture (Tsultem 1989), material culture (Tsultem 1987), painting, and architecture (Tsultem 1986 [cited under Mongolian Buddhist Art, 16th–21st Centuries]) and Tsultem 1988 (cited under Photograph Books and Websites); their synthetic texts give a concise but valuable introduction to Mongolian arts and architecture. In Chinese, Amuer Batu 1997 and Ge 1999 are two complementary overviews of Mongolian art and architecture, with a focus on Inner Mongolia; the former particularly develops archaeological findings; the latter gives biographies of artists and quotes publications from Mongolia.

  • Amuer Batu 阿木爾巴圖 (Mo. Amur Batu, = Bao Yuxiang 鮑玉祥). Mengguzu meishu yanjiu (蒙古族美術研究). Liaoyang, China: Liaoning minzu chubanshe, 1997.

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    Chronological comprehensive overview of material culture and art in Inner Mongolia and Mongolia, written by an Inner Mongolian art historian.

  • Berger, Patricia, and Terese Tse Bartholomew, eds. Mongolia: The Legacy of Chinggis Khan. London: Thames & Hudson, 1995.

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    Catalogue of 112 exhibits selected from museums and libraries of Ulaanbaatar, with innovative and well-researched contributions on Mongolian art, including essays on history, scripts, nomadic life, Buddhist festivals, and iconography.

  • Ge Shanlin 蓋山林. Menggu zu wenwu yu kaogu yanjiu (蒙古族文物與考古研究). Shenyang, China: Liaoning minzu chubanshe, 1999.

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    Thematic overview of the archaeology, material culture and art of Inner Mongolia and Mongolia, written by a Chinese archaeologist.

  • Heissig, Walther, and Claudius C. Müller, eds. Die Mongolen: Haus der Kunst. 2 vols. Innsbruck, Austria: Umschau, 1989.

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    First great exhibit of Mongolian art and artifacts of the Ulaanbaatar museums from the Neolithic to the modern period (Volume 1), with fifty-nine short essays written by prominent European Mongolists (Volume 2). Of special interest here are essays on handicrafts, appliqués, smiths, bone sculptures, tsam dances, and illustrated manuscripts.

  • Müller, Claudius, and Henriette Pleiger, eds. Dschingis Khan und seine Erben: Das Weltreich der Mongolen. Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2005.

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    Catalogue of an exhibition presented in Bonn, Munich, and Istanbul. There are 486 items from museums in Europe and Asia covering 2,000 years of material culture. Included are synthetic essays on various topics, including the Buddhist manuscripts of Kharbukhyn Balgas and recent archaeological findings at Kharakhorum and Erdene Zuu Monastery.

  • Tsultem, N. Mongolian Arts and Crafts. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia: State Publishing House, 1987.

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    Overview of a variety of arts and crafts from museums of Mongolia and Buryatia. Synthetic introduction in four languages (Russian, English, French, and Spanish).

  • Tsultem, N. Mongolian Sculpture. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia: State Publishing House, 1989.

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    Selection of Mongolian sculptures from the Stone Age to the early 20th century. Synthetic introduction in four languages (Russian, English, French, and Spanish).

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