Burmese art has developed in contact with Indian art, from which it has drawn numerous elements. The Indian forms passed into Burma both directly through the settlers who emigrated from the Orissa coast, and indirectly through Tibet, Ceylon and Cambodge. That relations with India were continuous is attested to by the fact that in 1105 and 1298 Burmese architects collaborated in the restoration of the famous Mahâbodhi temple in Bodh-Gaya. Even some Chinese and Muslim elements have penetrated Burmese art, as well as European influences starting from the century. XVIII.
Although in the lower basins of the Irawady and the Sittang, and especially in the ancient Hindu seats of Prome and Tathôn, there are very numerous Brahmanic vestiges, the history of Burmese art is also that of a Buddhist art. The predominant form of Buddhism in Burma is that called Hinayâna or “Little Vehicle” while the doctrines of Mahâyâna (“Great Vehicle”) have influenced rather on popular beliefs and practices, and only in certain respects on Burmese art (Tantric frescoes of Minnanthu, thirteenth century).
An era of artistic flowering begins with King Anorattha (1040-1077). Conqueror and apostle at the same time, he would have erected more than five thousand sanctuaries in the country under his dominion; however it was certainly not he, but one of his successors, who built the famous temple of Ananda in Pagan (1082-1090). This temple, which has a Greek cross plan, contains several chapels preceded by vestibules. It is built of brick, but its external walls and terraces are decorated with bas-reliefs in glazed terra cotta, representing scenes taken from the Jataka or previous existences of the Buddha. On the walls of the main gallery large carved and painted wooden panels reproduce the life of the Blessed. The center of the temple is occupied by four standing Buddhas, of colossal proportions, oriented towards the four cardinal points.
Burmese architecture is a complex mix of styles and traditions. The stupas now they sharpen into cusps, now they are rounded into bulbous domes or hemispherical caps, sometimes gigantic in size. Mostly these monuments rise above a plinth of several floors and are constructed of brick covered with fine chalk, whose whiteness shining amidst the green of the rice fields and tropical trees is wonderfully picturesque. The whole is surmounted by superimposed parasols, formed of gilded discs. Properly called temples or pagodas often rise above a square or cruciform plane. Those of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are reminiscent of South Indian architecture. Among the decorative forms that Burmese artists prefer to use, there is the sea monster or “makara”, the stylized lion, the multi-headed snake, the lotus, the mask, the headband decorated with flames, the perforated window. To these elements of Indian origin are added the Chinese dragon and, in recent constructions, some motifs taken from European art. The use of the round arch is not uncommon.
Ancient traditions have persisted in Burmese architecture until modern times. Thus the magnificent palace, which is also a citadel, of Mandalay, finished in 1859 under the reign of Mindon Min, can be said to be the perfect evocation of a medieval residence, with pompous audience halls, sumptuous apartments, pavilions, terraces and the fountains, all surrounded by walls and moats. All buildings in Mandalay are built with lightweight material, as stone is rarely used in Burma.
Burmese sculpture does not have the imprint of great originality; the plastic forms are very weak, although not without a certain attraction. Although skilled in working in bronze, the Burmese cannot compete with the Nepalese and Tibetans in the art of melting and chiseling Buddhist idols. On the other hand, wood carving has reached a high degree of perfection among Burmese artists; unfortunately they, like those of Siam, have a singular predilection for gilding and glass ornaments.
Burmese painting is represented by miniatures, paintings on wood and frescoes. The frescoes of the rocky temple of Kyanzittha are of special importance, because Mongolian warriors are represented there and because they recall the capture of Pagan by the armies of Kublai Khān in 1287. The manuscripts are now executed on latania leaves, now on copper or pieces. of lacquered cloth, and often have a very rich ornamentation.
Sculpture on ivory, goldsmithing and the weaving of brocade silks also flourish in Burma.