Iconography is the use of images and symbols to convey meaning. Within the scriptures of the Yungdrung Bön, the many images and symbols that are used in sacred art are described in great detail. This includes composition, proportions, color, hand objects, clothing, ornamentations, etc. Very few details are left to the interpretation of the artist. However, in spite of this great detail, it is not uncommon for an image to be drawn and/or painted incorrectly. This is due to the fact that not all artist are familiar with the texts even though they can be greatly skilled in painting.
Many sacred images are in the form of a thangkha, a painting on canvas that is framed in colored cloth and has dowels at the top and bottom to enable the painting to be rolled. Traditionally, the paintings are rolled from the bottom towards the top. There are often ties at the top that are used to fasten the rolled painting and allow it to be easily carried without damaging it. A more common term used in the text is zhalthang, “zhal” being the honorific term for face or countenance.
An example of the use of the use of symbolic meaning is demonstrated by the images depicted upon the throne underneath the main figures. Shown here are the five animals that represent the five poisons. By being positioned under the main figure, this indicates that the deity tames or transforms this particular poison into its antidote. For example, although the enlightened deity Sherap Chamma has all of the perfected qualities, emphasis is placed on her teaching sentient beings to transform anger and hatred into love and kindness. This is represented by lions on the throne below her. Lions in that context represent the poison of anger and hatred.
According the oral teachings of the preeminent scholar and master HE Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, the five animals that are depicted underneath the main figures in this way represent: Lion=anger or hatred, elephant=ignorance, garuda=desire, horse=jealousy and dragon=pride.