The Art Institute has recently acquired, through the Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, a remarkable set of pottery tomb figures from an imperial burial site of the T’ang dynasty (A.D. 618-906). This set, excavated as recently as 1948 near Loyang-Fu in Honan province, represents a complete tomb retinue. It includes ten large and strikingly beautiful figures of guardians, dignitaries, earth-spirits, horses, and camels, which were placed in the tomb to serve the deceased in the next world. The figures are of the highest quality known, and representative of the crowning achievements of the Chinese in both fine ceramics and small-scale sculpture under the T’ang emperors.The rule of the T’ang emperors was doubtless the most brilliant period in Chinese history. They were the first to unify modern China, to extend more humane and civil liberties, and to permit a range of religious practices. It was during their reign that the Chinese established many of their aesthetic canons and produced their greatest literature and painting. Under their command, also, the Chinese people established an empire that traded with India, Persia, and the Byzantine Empire to the west, and with Japan to the east. The effect of these contacts was reciprocal. The Chinese, for example, took over some elements of Near-Eastern art, as these tomb figures will indicate.Although the Wei dynasty, which preceded the T’ang, had produced great sculpture, the creations of the T’ang dynasty rivaled the earlier work and offered an even greater variety of material and subject-matter. They included the great rock-cut temples of Lung-Mên; stone memorials such as the stelae, stone figures, and tomb reliefs; and ceramic sculpture, which was actually the most important phase of T’ang ceramic art and which has not been surpassed in any country or any century. For the most part, T’ang sculpture portrays religious or animal subject matter, and both types are combined in the terra cotta figurines designed for tombs. The distinct style of the monumental sculpture of the period is reflected in these T’ang figures. It is probably the influence of the great stone works which elevates the lesser ceramic productions to such a high degree of quality.Like the stone sculpture of the period, the ceramic pieces reveal the beliefs and folklore of ancient China. For several thousand years at least the Chinese had placed pottery utensils, models of objects used in everyday life, and figures in their tombs to serve the dead in the next world. They called these objects ming-ch’i.
The utensils were usually of inferior quality because better utensils would be kept for use on this earth. The models of everyday objects and figures, on the other hand, were usually of higher quality since they could not be used for any other purpose.The specific purpose of the figures was to provide companionship, entertainment, or protection for the deceased in the hereafter, and they became the most popular of the ming-ch’i.
By T’ang times the fashion for them was so great that an imperial order was finally issued to regulate the number which could be placed in a tomb.The use of tomb figures can be traced to the ancient custom of human sacrifice; a practice which was eventually supplanted by the more humane use of effigies. The figures were used in different forms under the Han, Wei, T’ang, and later dynasties. As late as 1908, when the Dowager Empress died, the Peking public provided her with attendants in the hereafter by burning straw and paper effigies of her courtiers. The tomb figures usually come in pairs, following the arrangements of the large stone sculptures lining the spirit-path to the Han and later tombs. The pottery figures were placed within the entrance to the tomb, but were arranged in much the same fashion as the stone works outside.Pottery tomb figures of the T’ang dynasty represents a mature development of an art which was already seven or eight centuries old. The selection of clay as a medium for these figurines was natural; it was plentiful, economical, and could easily be adapted to mass production. The clays vary from soft earthenware to porcellaneous stoneware, and from white to buff in color; the Institute’s figures are made of a fine white clay. The decoration depends primarily upon direct painting on the figures, or on a lead or high-fired feldspathic glaze in colors ranging from yellow, brown, or green to white, and rarest of all, blue. The more sophisticated figures, such as the Institute’s tomb figures, are usually glazed.The technique is simple, as befits the nature of the medium. The figurines were modeled from life, with a grasp of the articulation of human, and especially animal, figures which reveals both understanding and imagination. Most of them were made in molds and touched up by hand afterward. Most of them, including the Institute’s set, are hollow. The decoration, achieved chiefly through glaze, was often enriched with beautifully incised, carved, or stamped patterns; any unglazed areas were frequently painted. There are indications of red, blue, and gold, as well as of black in the form of outlines, on the unglazed parts of the Institute’s figures.A more detailed examination of this tomb set reveals the fine and consistently high quality of the figures. The predominating amount of blue glaze alone would make this one of the rarest T’ang sets in existence. However, it is the quality of the pieces as sculpture that gives the group its particular distinction; the crispness of the carving and the freedom of the modeling in these figures indeed reflect the great stone work of the T’ang dynasty. Two tomb sets of similar type and quality have actually been dated, according to scientific excavation data, 683 and 728 respectively. The imperial order limiting the number of tomb figurines was issued in 741. Thus this group can reasonably be assumed to date not later than the eighth century A.D.There are five pairs of figurines in the Institute’s set, three of which represent humorous or supernatural men, and two of which represent animals. The three pairs of human figures stand on rock-like bases. The two pairs of animals stand on flat, partially glazed bases. The most important of the five pairs of figures are the guardians, or lokapalas,
who guard the four quarters of the Buddhist heaven. They are depicted standing on bulls of Indian Buddhist origin, dressed in armor and wearing symbolic phoenix-shaped headdresses. Their leg-of-mutton sleeves actually represent the heads of wild animals. In the upraised hand of each is a small hole in which a wooden spear may, at one time, have been placed. The guardian shown in Plate I is glazed except for the head, headdress, and hands, all of which show traces of polychromy and gilt. Blue is the predominant color on both the guardian and the bull on which it stands, but there is also a great deal of white, brown, and mottled green and yellow. The guardian shown in Plate II is glazed except for the head and headdress. The same colors which appear on the first guardian are repeated on this figure, but with a more pronounced treatment of a blue, brown, and mottled yellow effect on the skirt. Elements of Sassanian design appear on the armor. The very free handling of the drapery and the magnificent relief in the carving of these guardians reflect the grandeur of the colossal guardians at Lung-Mên.The two dignitaries are quite different in character. While the guardians are appropriately ferocious and mythological, the dignitaries have been conceived as statesmen. One (Pl. III) is evidently a civil advisor and the other (Pl. IV) a military leader. Their status is indicated not only by their symbolic headdresses, but by the philosophical expression on the face of the civil advisor and the arrogant expression of the military leader. Each has a small hole in his hand, in which he probably held a wooden kuei
or scepter emphasizing his official status. The dignitary shown in Plate IV is completely glazed. He wears a magnificent blue robe that reveals, at the bottom, a white undergarment and a brown pleated skirt. The other dignitary wears a brown robe with details in mottled colors. He wears one glove, and in that gloved hand holds the second glove, leaving the other hand free for the kuei.
Totally different, again are the earth-spirits, which, as the earliest type of tomb figure known, predate the T’ang and Buddhist iconography. The figure shown in Plate V is actually a T’u-kuai,
or earth-spirit, with a human head. The head, the horns, and the enormous ears are boldly and imaginatively modeled. The beard has been incised in a conventionalized manner. The glaze on this figure is predominately blue, accented with white lines on the belly and legs. The earth-spirit shown in Plate VI is a perfect tour-de-force
of ceramic sculpture. The figure is freely modeled, with a wealth of carved detail on the head, ears, wings, and fins. It is predominately blue and white, with some yellow and malachite green on the hind feet, and it is notable that the over-all glaze emphasizes the menacing aspect of the figure.The T’ang rulers were famous for their love of horses and encouraged a similar passion in their people by developing fine studs from the cross-breeding of small ponies from Mongolia with the stronger horses imported from Arabia. The Institute’s pair of horses seems to be the result of such breeding, for they display both great power and quality. One of these horses (pl. VII) is brown, and, in spots where the glaze is oxidized, manganese. Its clipped, cream-colored mane rises from the powerful neck like a crest, but the last uncut inch lies lightly as a feather on the swelling curve of the throat in front of the saddle. The trappings, with their Sassanian decorations, were doubtless brought to China with Arabian horses. They include a white saddle-pad covered with a second pad of blue and mottled green and yellow. The saddle itself, which was probably wooden, is covered with a fine cloth knotted on each side to hold it taut over the wooden frame. With the exception of a few areas on the flat base, the horse is entirely glazed.The companion to this noble beast is one of the greatest T’ang horses ever discovered. Modeled with complete understanding, its controlled restiveness is the more striking because of the suggestion of latent power which prompts it. The cobalt blue glaze, which covers all areas but the mane, the tail, and trappings, has oxidized, on the hind legs, to an iridescent silvery-blue. The long mane, glazed in creamy white with brownish stripes, sweeps down over the proudly curved neck like a wave. The decorations of the trappings repeat the Sassanian influence seen in other figures in this set.Horses of this type were bred primarily for riding or campaigning and were the aristocrats of the T’ang animal kingdom. Beasts of burden were the camels, represented in this set by two magnificent examples. Both are Bactrian, and both, with the exception of minute areas, are glazed. The figure on the cover is predominantly brown and yellow, with blue and mottled blue, green, yellow, and brown appearing in the blankets and saddle-bags. The modeling of this disdainful beast, whinnying impatiently as it waits for the caravan to move on, is exceptionally fine. The second camel, shown in Plate IX, is decorated with glazed in approximately the same colors and is presented in a similar pose. It also carries a blanket, but no gear, and the humps bear roughly incised lines indicating the true hairy back of the Bactrian.These ten tomb figures will serve a dual purpose in the Institute’s collection. They will rank as ceramics and sculpture of the highest quality, reflecting the great T’ang style and tradition. In addition, they will provide a clue to the study and understanding of China’s historic past, for such figures offer a more intimate view of the material and spiritual life of T’ang China than monumental stone sculpture, by its very nature, permits.Referenced Works of Art
Cover. Camel. Bactrian type, with blanket and saddle-bags. Fine white clay, glazed except for small areas on the base. 21 1/2 inches high, 24 1/2 inches long.
- Guardian of one of the quarters of the Buddhist heaven. Fine white clay, glazed except for head and headdress. 39 inches high, including six-inch stand; 16 to 21 inches in circumference.
- Guardian of one of the quarters of the Buddhist heaven. Fine white clay, glazed except for head and headdress. 38 inches high, including six-inch stand; 16 to 21 inches in circumference.
- Dignitary. Probably a civil counselor. Fine white clay, glazed except for head, headdress, and hands. 38 3/4 inches high, including seven-inch stand; 20 inches in circumference.
- Dignitary. Military leader. Fine white clay, glazed except for head and headdress. 36 1/4 inches high, including seven-inch stand; 22 inches in circumference.
- Earth-Spirit with human head and movable flame halo. Fine white clay, glazed except for head and halo. 37 1/2 inches high, including eight-inch stand.
- Earth-Spirit with lion’s head. Fine white clay, completely glazed. 37 1/2 inches high, including seven-inch stand.
- Horse. Saddle, saddle-bags, and trappings with Sassanian ornaments. Fine white clay, glazed except for small areas on the base. 20 1/2 inches high, 23 1/2 inches long.
- Horse with saddle. Saddle-pads and trappings with Sassanian ornaments. Fine white clay, glazed except for saddle and top saddle-pad. 20 1/2 inches high, 20 1/4 inches long.
- Camel. Bactrian type, with saddle-blanket with Sassanian decoration. Fine white clay, glazed except for small areas on the base. 25 inches high, 17 inches long.