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Title

: Sixteen Chinese Bronze Mirrors Acquired for Permanent Collection

Author

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Date

1952

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The development of the Chinese bronze art, so fully and brilliantly exemplified in the great collection of Alfred F. Pillsbury, has been carried to its conclusion in a group of bronze mirrors acquired through the John R. Van Derlip Fund. Comprising sixteen examples dating from about the sixth century B.C. to the T'ang period, this group is of a quality and a variety great enough to give a good picture of the final flowering of an art in which China excelled for centuries. It displays, both in the mirrors of the Huai style and in those which announce the new direction to be taken by the Han, the continuing skill and power of invention of the gifted line of bronze artists who had served China since its beginning. The field in which their achievements is now to be observed in the oriental collections is one that may well be more appealing to the average visitor than the magnificent ritual vessels generally are. Yet it is not improbable that the mirrors, by virtue of their intimate and relatively simple character, will incline the visitor to look with a more appreciative eye at the austere beauty of the earlier bronzes.Although the history of bronze mirrors is much less ancient than that of ritual vessels such as those in the Pillsbury collection, existing examples indicate that they have been used in China from about the sixth century B.C. at least. They were desirable and important not only because of their primary practical use, but because they were held to have magical powers as well. They were believed to be capable of warding off evil and were often placed in the tomb to provide a guiding light for the dead. The fact that the mirror was usually round, and thus symbolical of heaven, gave it special value and made it infinitely preferable to the square mirrors, rare in any case, which were symbolical of the earth. The symbolism of the mirror, which had its source in the circular form, was increased by the type of designs used to decorate the reverse side. These may refer to the Chinese astrological system, to history, literature, or mythology, and are a source of great interest.The usual Chinese bronze mirror is a disc with a reflecting surface and a reverse side decorated with designs cast in relief. The back is furnished with a knob through which a cord may be passed for suspension, and is usually edged with one of several types of rim. Beginning with examples of the Han period, inscriptions were often included on the decorated surface. These, when present, help to date the mirrors and sometimes tell for whom they were made and why. The attribution of earlier types is arrived at through a variety of means: internal evidence, provenance, historical events, and the general evolution of bronze design. It is to the researches of Dr. Bernhard Karlgren, based on data provided by Dr. Orver Karlbeck, that the clear establishment of the pre-Han class of mirror is owed. These researches, published in the Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in a brilliant paper entitled "Huai and Han," are of utmost interest and value in any consideration of early mirrors.The Institute is fortunate in possessing, in the small group of bronze mirrors just acquired, five examples dating from about the sixth to the second centuries B.C.; eight of the Han period and style; one pre-T'ang silvered mirror; and two T'ang examples, one of them of lacquer inlaid in silver and gold.Among the earliest in the group should probably be placed an unusual square mirror with an openwork design of interlaced dragons inlaid with turquoise. The high relief of the design, the small knob, and the fact that the reflecting surface is a separate piece of metal riveted to the back, are all indicative of an early stage in the history of the bronze mirror. The t'ao-t'ieh class, also an early type, is represented by an example that may date from the sixth or fifth century B.C. The small knob centered directly in the main field, the thinness of the bronze, the flat rim, and above all the primitive character of the t'ao-t'ieh motif which furnished the main decoration, point to an early period. The t'ao-t'ieh motif, one of the most important in Yin and Early Chou ritual vessels, reappeared in the decoration of Huai style vessels following its discard by Middle Chou artists. The archaic nature of the present example would indicate a date fairly early in the Huai style period for this mirror.Two handsome examples of the early Shou-chou type of mirror represent two distinct expressions of the rich and extremely varied styles produced in that region from the fifth to the third centuries B.C. Both have the distinguishing marks of the type: a background of the comma pattern which gives this class its name; a central field generally bare; a small, fluted knob; a rim that is almost invariably concave and rises to a high edge. The earlier of the two mirrors dates from the fourth century. It has a round central field surrounded by a main zone of striped commas on a granulated ground. This is marked off into sections by four elongated, hooked bands in flat relief which rise into the field from the narrow ledge that separates the decor zone from the rim. Within the four areas thus created are four tigers which lie on one shoulder, supporting themselves with one paw against the outer rim, while their haunches swing over toward the central field and are in turn supported by one leg which rests against the inner field. Each tiger grasps the tail of the beast ahead of him in his jaws. These creatures, whose bodies are executed in the band technique, are extraordinarily graceful and relaxed.The later of these comma style mirrors, representing another type in this large class, dates from the third century. It represents a severe and striking variation on the basic theme. The central field is still bare, but it is square instead of round, thus introducing the earth symbol into the round disc that symbolizes heaven. The background still shows striped commas on a granulated ground, but the decor raised above it is a geometric pattern of zigzag lozenges which have here been distorted and combined in such a manner as to form a compound star design. A raised circle ornaments each lozenge and the four corners of the central motif.Dr. Karlgren points out that this vigorous decor element has been derived from the interlocking T background of another great class of pre-Han mirrors, the Lo-yang group, which is represented by a beautiful specimen in the present group. This example is one of the series remarkable for the elegance of its animal decor. It has a round central band with an inner field of interlocked, spiral-filled T's on a granulated ground. The same background obtains in the main zone, which is filled with three slender and long-drawn-out dragons pacing around the main field in a stately pavanne. The fork and plume-like ornaments of the tails, and the stylized, hooked-lozenge shape of the bodies, emphasize the refined and exquisite character of these beasts. Distinguished by a grace and freedom reminiscent of that to be found on the Huai style hunting scene vessels, they are of a group unique in the mirror art of the pre-Han period.The zigzag lozenge and the dragon are combined in another fashion in an early Han example representing a further development of the Shou-chou group of bronze mirrors. The main zone, set off from the round, central field by a narrow band of raised slanting strokes, has a ground of volutes and triangles. On this are three large dragons, executed in flat relief, which are separated from each other by a compound geometric figure formed of zigzag lozenges. Within a large loop of each big dragon, which is joined to the lozenges by swirling, terminal loops, is a smaller, independent dragon. Three additional dragons appear above the rim in the tent-like spaces created by the connecting elements of the lozenges. Although this mirror does not display all of the earmarks of the class which prompt Dr. Karlgren to date it as early Han, it does include two of them: the presence of an unusual number of curls and volutes on the various decor elements, an innovation which heralds the fully developed Han curl border; and the crowded character of the decorated zone. Other purely Han characteristics of this group are the introduction of a new background design of parallel lines; the introduction of the TLV motif so typical of Han mirrors; and, of great importance, the frequent use of inscriptions-a practice which appears to have coincided with the beginning of the Han Dynasty.Another mirror approximately the same period, the second century B.C., is a square mirror with the main field inlaid in gold in an interlacing design of the Han curl border. The very small central field with a simple fluted knob is a further indication of a fairly early Han date, for it is generally agreed that the change-over from the pre-Han small fluted knob to the large hemispherical Han knob occurred about 100 B.C. The presence of such a large knob, in a squared field with rounded corners resting on a gracefully drawn quatrefoil, indicates a later date on an unusual mirror. This example, made of iron, is inlaid with gold and silver in a design of graceful scrolls and volutes set off from each other by four pairs of confronted bird dragons. These stylish winged beasts, with scaled bodies and tails ending in birds' heads, have a heraldic character that contrasts strongly with the fluid drawing of the scroll design.A more typical group of Han mirrors includes one of the familiar TLV types bearing the four traditional beasts symbolical of the four points of the compass: the Dark Warrior of the North, the Azure Dragon of the east, the Red Bird of the south, and the White Tiger of the west, and a group generally known as the Yüeh type after the ancient name of the Chekiang Province site in which many appear to have been found. A characteristic mirror of this class is shown on the cover of this Bulletin. It is a fairly large example, almost nine inches in diameter, decorated in the crisp relief that distinguished this group. The main field, surrounding a large, hemispherical knob bordered by twenty-two small bosses, is marked off into four areas by four large conical nipples. Within the spaces thus isolated appear two two-wheeled carts, each drawn by five horses, and two seated figures flanked by kneeling figures paying court. The decoration of these mirrors is usually based on mythical and legendary figures, and on the fantastic or symbolic animals that played such an important part in Taoist lore. Since the two personages most frequently portrayed in the design are Hsi Wang Mu and Tung Wang Kung, it is probable that it is they who are represented on the present mirror. It is extremely thick and heavy, in the Han manner, and is adorned with an inscription, as yet unread, which is undoubtedly of a dedicatory nature.A further well-known Yüeh type is represented by one of the profusely decorated mirrors characterized by the band of squares and semi-circles bordering the main decor field. This mirror, like many others of its kind, is distinguished by the spirited and fluid quality of the sprites, animals, and demons streaming around the main border of the rim. A group of legendary figures and fantastic animals appear in the main zone of this example, and again on a later, gilded mirror decorated in rather high relief. The latter serves as a bridge to the exuberantly decorated pre-T'ang mirror of sea horse and grape design which has become familiar through the group of T'ang mirrors presented by Augustus L. Searle in 1951.The twilight of this elegant, vigorous, and finally lavish art is encountered in the battered but lovely T'ang example decorated with a free and poetic design of great pale blossoms and birds in flight. The discreet radiance of the gold and silver inlay against the somewhat dusty lacquer ground creates an effect of singular beauty, which makes easier to bear the realization that the end of a great art is at hand.Referenced Works of ArtFrontispiece. Bronze mirror with pictorial decoration in relief.
Yüeh type, late Han. John R. Van Derlip Fund.
  1. Bronze mirror with openwork design of interlaced dragons.
    Sixth or fifth century B.C. (?)
  2. Bronze mirror with t'ao-t'ieh masks in relief.
    Sixth or fifth century B.C.
  3. Bronze mirror with dragons on interlocking T ground.
    Lo-yang type, fourth century B.C.
  4. Bronze mirror with zigzag lozenges on ground of comma pattern.
    Shou-chou type, third century B.C.
  5. Bronze mirror with design of dragons and compound lozenges.
    Shou-chou type, Early Han.
  6. Bronze mirror, gilded, with legendary figures and fantastic animals in relief.
    Late Han.
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Source: "Sixteen Chinese Bronzes Acquired for Permanent Collection," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 41, no. 33 (December, 1952): 174-180.
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Added to Site: March 10, 2009