The army of Mara is shown all around the Buddha. Here we see demons, ogresses, seductive sirens, trumpeters and descending spirits, all attempting to prevent Shakyamuni from reaching enlightenment.
The most spectacular aspect of this artwork is its color scheme. Utilizing bold gold lines over a rich black ground, it represents a special genre of thangkas. This distinctive style of potent, highly mystical paintings portraying shimmering, brilliant forms appearing out of a translucent darkness, came to full fruition in the second half of the seventeenth century in Tibet.
There is a well thought out symbolism behind these so-called Black Paintings. Black signifies the primordial darkness. In the realm where it is dark, because there is no light reflected, there is also a sound which we cannot hear as it is so high on the scale of harmonics that it is inaccessible to the hearing capacity of any physical being. The wonders of creation may be manifested through the gradual slowing down of vibrations. The darkness becomes light, the shadows colors, the colors sound, and sound creates form.
The aesthetic power of such paintings is derived from the contrast of powerful lines against a black background, making them one of the most effective means to appreciate the Tibetan mastery of line work. Black paintings, a relatively late appearance in Buddhist art, have added yet another means by which artists can conjure up visions of mysterious transcendent worlds. Like the fierce deities who are challenging Buddha here, the blackness signifies the darkness of hate and ignorance as well as the role these qualities have to play in the awakening of clarity and truth.
The thangkas with a black background form a special category of contemplative paintings. They are a highly mystical and esoteric type, usually reserved for advanced practice. Black is the color of hate, transmuted by the alchemy of wisdom into compassion. Darkness represents the imminence of the absolute, the threshold of the experience. It is used for terrific ritual actions, the radical conquest of evil in all its forms - conquest not by annihilating, but by turning even evil into good. Thus, in the black paintings (T. nagtang) the black ground casts forth deities in luminous visions of translucent colors.
Surrounding the central Buddha are four other smaller Buddha figures. These are the four Dhyani Buddhas. Starting from the top in a clockwise direction they are: Ratnasambhava; Amitabha; Amoghasiddhi; and finally there is Vairochana. The Buddha who is the center of attraction in this composition is identified with Akshobhya, the fifth Dhyani Buddha.