A MAGNIFICENT PAIR OF PAINTED POTTERY FIGURES OF EARTH SPIRITS, ZHENMUSHOU
A MAGNIFICENT PAIR OF PAINTED POTTERY FIGURES OF EARTH SPIRITS, ZHENMUSHOU
A MAGNIFICENT PAIR OF PAINTED POTTERY FIGURES OF EARTH SPIRITS, ZHENMUSHOU
A MAGNIFICENT PAIR OF PAINTED POTTERY FIGURES OF EARTH SPIRITS, ZHENMUSHOU
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PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT AMERICAN COLLECTION
A MAGNIFICENT PAIR OF PAINTED POTTERY FIGURES OF EARTH SPIRITS, ZHENMUSHOU

TANG DYNASTY (AD 618-907)

Details
A MAGNIFICENT PAIR OF PAINTED POTTERY FIGURES OF EARTH SPIRITS, ZHENMUSHOU
TANG DYNASTY (AD 618-907)
One figure has a leonine face, knobbed horns and a twisted crest, and is shown roaring triumphantly as it crouches atop a wild boar, with one clawed foot pushing down on the prone animal's head, the other back leg extended while the powerful beast raises its right front leg in a violent warning gesture. The body is decorated in blue, white and black pigment and gold-leaf with a pattern of large irregular spots, the broad chest and belly in orangy-red and the flames rising from the legs with polychrome chevron patterns. The other figure is modeled with a pugnacious humanoid face, and is shown seated with front hoofs firmly planted on a rocky base. Chevron-decorated flames rise from the powerful shoulders and a twisted hank of hair flanked by further flames rises from the top of the head. Its body is also painted with large irregular spots in pale green and black, with stripes of gold leaf bordering the orangy-red chest.
30 ¼ and 29 ½ in. (76.8 and 75 cm.) high
Provenance
Acquired in Hong Kong in 1998.
Christie's New York, 24 March 2004, lot 135.

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Lot Essay

No doubt made for a patron of considerable social status, this magnificent pair of Earth Spirits is exceptionally well-modeled with an extraordinary amount of their original cold-painted decoration preserved. This surface decoration includes not only brightly colored pigments, but also extensive use of gilded decoration – indications of the highest quality.

ZHENMUSHOU: TOMB GUARDIAN FIGURES

Specially produced tomb animals have been found in graves dating to the 3rd century, but initially they seem to have appeared as single figures. Later it became the custom to include pairs of these ferocious figures in the tombs of the elite. In the Tang dynasty, figures such as this magnificent pair would have been placed close to the entrance to the tomb in order to ward off evil and protect the soul of the deceased. A number of different names have been applied to such figures, but in recent years the term most frequently used in Chinese literature is zhenmushou, or ‘tomb guardian creatures’, reflecting their function in the tomb. The strange physical forms and fierce expressions of these zhenmushou were intended to emphasize their power over evil and their role in protecting the tomb occupant from evil spirits. Such figures always display commanding physiques with barrel-like chests and fierce expressions – in keeping with their role as powerful protectors - and each pair is made up of two distinct types. One of each pair has a snarling animal head, with prominent canine teeth and a rather leonine muzzle topped by a pair of curved horns. The horns often have additional sharp protuberances on the lower part at the front, as in the case of the current figure. Its ferocity is further emphasized by the dragon-like claws or lion’s clawed feet, which it holds in a threatening manner. The other figure in the pair has an almost human face, topped by what looks like either a long plume of hair or a long single, spiraled, horn and with large ears on either side of the head. This creature has cloven hooves and sits on its haunches with its front legs straight and firmly planted in front of it in an attitude known in heraldry as ‘sejant’. While the animal-headed figure is poised for aggressive action, the human-faced figure sits solidly immovable, as if to emphasize that it will block the passage of any evil spirit which threatens to enter the tomb.

In some instances the human-faced creatures have weapons, such as halberds or tridents protruding from their heads. A sancai zhenmushou figure excavated in 1959 from Zhonghao village, Xi’an, Shaanxi (illustrated in the catalogue of the exhibition The Silk Road – Treasures of Tang China, Empress Place, Singapore, 1991, p. 92), for example, has a trident at the back of its head. Like the current example, however, the human-faced figure of the sancai-glazed pair of zhenmushou excavated in 1957 from the tomb of Xianyu Tinghui in Xi’an (illustrated by the National Museum of Chinese History in A Journey into China’s Antiquity, vol. III, Beijing, 1997, no. 186) has only horns and plumes of hair. Simpler examples of both type of zhenmushou, in the same poses as the current figures, which were excavated in 1972 at Hanshen Stockade, Xi’an, Shaanxi, were also included in the exhibition catalogue The Silk Road – Treasures of Tang China, op. cit., p. 93.

DYNAMIC FEROCITY AND DISTINCTIVE PAINTING

The pair of zhenmushou in the current sale has been modeled with great skill – endowing one with a wonderfully dynamic ferocity and the other with an obdurate, menacing, immobility. The first figure’s dramatic feeling of movement suggests that he is about to pounce upon some emanation of evil. Interestingly, his right foot is firmly planted on the neck of a sow, which may represent a sacrificial animal which was part of the funerary rites. The painting of the surface of this pair of figures is distinctive, not only in the multi-colored chevrons on the flames which rise from their shoulders and heads, but, more especially, in the large – almost cloud-like - mottles, which cover the back, sides and limbs of both zhenmushou. In some ways these markings relate to scales, but are painted in a manner which resembles slices of geode, and were perhaps intended to suggest additional hardness, splendor, and supernatural power.

Compare a single painted and gilt-decorated pottery figure of an earth spirit, also dated to the Tang dynasty, in the Kimbell Art Foundation. (Fig. 1), similarly modeled with a leonine face and flames and animatedly posed astride a mythical beast upon a rocky plinth. The Kimbell example is finely painted wearing a richly-textured textile panel with floral patterns and highlights in gilt.

Rosemary Scott
International Academic Director, Asian Art

The results of Oxford Authentication Ltd. thermoluminescence test nos. C298a45 and C298a44 are consistent with the dating of this lot.

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