Two Extraordinary Tang Silver Vessels
Formerly in the Renowned Collection of Carl Kempe
Made during the Tang dynasty (618–907) for a client of elevated stature, perhaps even for a member of the imperial court, these handsome vessels of hammered silver—a bowl and a dish—were formerly a part of the famous collection assembled by renowned Swedish collector Carl Kempe (1884–1967) and thus claim a distinguished, even enviable, provenance. The vessels were ultimately inspired by luxury goods crafted in precious metals that were reaching Chang’an (modern Xi’an), the Tang capital, from ancient Iran via the fabled Silk Route, those imported Iranian goods themselves inspired by gold and silver vessels crafted in ancient Rome.
The side walls of this exquisite silver “animals bowl” are gently rounded, flaring subtly outward to form the lip and curving inward to shape the flat base. Engraved and punched decoration covers the exterior of the bowl; the interior, like the base, is unembellished.
Four tiers of recurring, heart-shaped medallions—Chinese authors term them “peach shaped”—encircle the bowl’s exterior, the tier around the midsection being the most prominent. Immediately below the plain, narrow lip, a lissome floral scroll borders the decorative scheme at the top, a narrow band of double, stylized blossoms separating it from the uppermost tier of decoration; a bird-in-flight appears between each pair of double blossoms. Tucked within each heart-shaped medallion a long-tailed quadruped strides toward the viewer’s left; most of the animals are recognizable and include a camel and an elephant, along with boars, foxes, and wolves, among others. Such decoration recalls—and was possibly inspired by—the inhabited vine scrolls that were popular in the arts of ancient Rome and that were transmitted along the Silk Route. The decoration, all of which appears against a punched, ring-mat ground—typically called a “fish-roe pattern” or “pearl ground” in Chinese—is so refined and meticulously finished that it is difficult to determine whether it was engraved or chased. A liner covers the bowl’s interior, affording a smooth, even surface.
Although most Tang silver bowls—which admittedly are few in number—have an S-curved profile, a slightly flaring lip, and a short footring, whether straight or splayed, this rare bowl has vertical side walls and a flat base. It finds kinship in several similarly shaped bowls with vertical walls, plain lip, and flat base, if with different decorative schemes, including one excavated at Hejiacun and two in the collection of the Hakutsuru Museum of Fine Art, Kobe, Japan. The Hejiacun bowl formed part of the famous hoard of gold and silver vessels discovered in October 1970 at Hejiacun, in the southern part of modern Xi’an, in Shaanxi province. 1. In the analysis of shapes section of his 1999 Research on Tang Gold and Silver, Peking University Professor Qi Dongfang, who is a renowned authority on Chinese gold and silver, illustrates and discusses Tang silver bowls with round and flat bottoms, including the present example, the Hejiacun bowl, and the Hakutsuru bowls. 2. Now in the collection of the Shaanxi History Museum, Xian, a bowl of similar shape, also with engraved decoration and ring-mat ground but with a splayed footring, was also recovered in the Hejiacun excavations. The bowl of related shape but with engraved and punched decoration in the collection of Pierre Uldry 3. is deeper and, like the Hejiacun bowl, has a footring.
The decoration on this bowl shows kinship to that of other Tang-dynasty bowls from the late seventh and early eighth century in both subject matter and technique of decoration. Representative of the very finest, Tang-dynasty craftsmanship, the gold and silver vessels from the Hejiacun hoard are believed to have been made in workshops in the Xinghua Square area of ancient Chang’an (i.e., in the same general area where the Hejiacun cache was found). The present bowl’s similarity to ones excavated at Hejiacun confirms its Tang-dynasty origins and suggests that it might have been produced either in one of those Xinghua Square workshops or in one closely allied with them.
This bowl was shaped from a single piece of silver hammered into shape over a matrix, probably of wood. The decorative motifs were either engraved or chased on the exterior, after which the background areas were punched to create the ring-matted ground. The interior was then lined with a second sheet of hammered silver to provide a smooth, even surface and conceal from view the uneven surfaces created by the designs executed on the exterior. The upper edge of the liner was then folded over the bowl’s thin lip and hammered into place. 4. Close inspection of the bowl reveals that the outer rim was then covered with narrow strips of silver, expertly concealing the fold-over join between the liner and the exterior of the bowl.
The second vessel considered here is the parcel-gilt silver dish emblazoned on its floor with repoussé decoration of a rhinoceros standing foursquare, facing the viewer’s left, and bearing on its back three stylized blossoms displayed in a lotiform stand. The walls of this relatively shallow “rhinoceros dish” expand outward in a gentle S-curve, terminating in a lightly everted lip. A raised bowstring line encircles the floor’s central medallion, while a pair of raised bowstring lines accentuates the dish’s lip. Like the rhinoceros, the bowstring lines are gilt. The exterior of the dish is plain. A short, vertical footring circumscribes the flat base, which, though undecorated, includes an intaglio impression, or echo, of the repoussé rhinoceros design on the dish’s interior.
Tang silver dishes of this shape are rare; even so, another, virtually identical parcel-gilt silver dish with decoration of a rhinoceros bearing flowers but with the rhinoceros facing the viewer’s right—i.e., a “mirror image” of the present dish—also formerly in the Kempe collection, was presumably was a pair to the present dish, and is illustrated in Giuseppe Eskenazi’s A Dealer’s Hand (Plate 79). 5. A gold dish or basin excavated in 1970 at the Hejiacun site and now in the Shaanxi History Museum claims a similar shape but is undecorated and lacks a footring. 6.
Its stout body divided into three parts and covered with scales, the rhinoceros is shown with two horns, a long tail, and four short legs with three toes on each foot. Though stylized, the representation accurately captures the form and bulk of the rhinoceros. Although some of the scales that cover the beast’s body are rounded, most are trefoil in shape and recall the form of clouds in Tang paintings and other arts.
Both archaeological and literary evidence attest that rhinoceroses lived in China, even in northern China, in early times. 7. Due to over-hunting the rhinoceros had become extinct in northern China by Tang times but was still known in parts of southern China. Exotic animals were typically offered to the Chinese emperor as tribute by foreign states, nations in Southeast Asia often presenting rhinoceros horns and hides as gifts and occasionally presenting live animals, as well, which were kept in imperial parks in the capital. 8.
Best-known among early archaeological representations of the rhinoceros include 1) the famous Shang-dynasty, bronze rhinoceros-form zun wine vessel in San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum (B60B1+), which was discovered at Liangshan, Shandong province, in 1843, 2) the celebrated late Warring States to early Western-Han, gold-inlaid bronze, rhino-form wine vessel unearthed in 1963 at Doumacun, Wuxiang, Xingping County, Shaanxi province and now in the National Museum of China, Beijing, 9. and 3) the Western Han, late second century BC, gilt bronze rhinoceros sculpture from the tomb of Liu Fei—known as King Yi of Jiangdu (169–128 BC; r. 153–128 BC)—that was excavated in 2010 from Tomb 1 at Dayunshan, Xuyi, Jiangsu Province, that is now in the collection of the Nanjing Museum, and that was exhibited at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017. 10.
Seldom represented in the centuries between the fall of Han (206 BC–AD 220) in AD 220 and the rise of Tang in 618, the rhinoceros again makes an appearance in the arts of the Tang. Now in the collection of the Shaanxi History Museum, Xi’an, a small, parcel-gilt silver box recovered at Hejiacun in 1970 bears a rhinoceros. 11. And another Tang silver box emblazoned with a single seated rhinoceros is in the collection of the Hakutsuru Museum of Fine Art, Kobe, Japan. 12. In 1991 Christian Deydier exhibited a Tang silver bowl of different shape but with gilt repoussé decoration of a recumbent rhinoceros set against a punched and parcel-gilt floral arabesque ground. 13. Apart from those rhino-embellished silver dishes, bowls, and boxes, a small bronze sculpture of a standing rhinoceros now in a private collection has been dated to the Tang by thermoluminescence testing, 14. and a Tang bronze mirror whose back is decorated in pingtuo technique—that is, lacquer inset with ornaments in thin sheets of gold and silver, or, in this case, black lacquer inset with mother-of-pearl decoration—features decoration of a pair of striding rhinoceroses, the mirror in the collection of the Shoso-in, Nara, Japan. 15. In addition a damaged quatrefoil oval gilt bowl with a reclining rhinoceros in the center was recovered from wreckage of the Arabian dhow sailing vessel that sank off the coast of Belitung Island, Indonesia, in the mid-ninth century, the bowl dating to c. 825 to 850. 16. Arab-made, the ship, which was bearing Chinese goods, was en route from China to a Near Eastern destination, when it sank approximately 1.6 kilometers off the coast of Belitung Island.
In the Shang and early Zhou periods the rhinoceros was prized for its tough hide, which was used to make armor. By the Warring States period, if not earlier, belief had taken hold that the beast’s horn could detect, even neutralize, poison in food and drink, giving the rhinoceros special cachet. In fashioning armor, the hide—whether rhinoceros hide or leather from the hide of an ox or other animal—once dried and properly prepared, was cut into small rectangular strips, known as plates, that were linked together to form lamellar armor, often termed fish-scale armor in Chinese. Such armor no doubt resembled the lamellar armor worn by the terracotta warriors recovered from the trenches around the tomb of Qinshihuangdi (r. 221–210 BC), though the lamellar armor of Qinshihuang’s warriors surely had plates of leather or, more likely, of iron. 17. With the gradual extinction of the rhinoceros in north China late in the Bronze Age (c. 1700 BC–AD 220) and with the rise of iron-plate armor during the Zhou, the use of rhinoceros-hide armor had seriously declined by the early years of our era; even so, it is believed that at least a little rhino-hide armor was still being made during the Tang dynasty. 18. And a diagram in a book published in 1852 indicates that rhinoceros-hide armor was still in use for ceremonial purposes as late as the Qing dynasty. 19.
Without written records from the Tang clearly stating the reason, we cannot know why the rhinoceros is depicted with scales. Apart from mere artistic license, the most plausible explanation for so portraying the rhinoceros is that the beast had become conflated with the qilin in the thinking of the day. Indeed, some individuals believed the rhinoceros to be the qilin, a mythical hooved chimerical creature from Chinese mythology. (In the Ming dynasty the giraffe was believed by many to be the qilin.) 20. Although often depicted with the lithe body and furred hide of a deer, the qilin is also frequently shown with scales over its body, as witnessed by the Yuan-dynasty (1279–1368), blue-and-white charger with qilin decor in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (AK-RBK-1965-88). 21.
Numerous silver dishes with decoration of a single gilded animal on the floor were recovered from Hejiacun in 1970, the animals, both real and fantastic, including foxes, lynxes, phoenixes, bears, and tortoises, among others. Of particular interest, as it sports decoration of a rhinoceros, is the small, parcel-gilt silver box recovered at Hejiacun in 1970 and now in the Shaanxi History Museum, Xi’an. The repoussé animals appear on the otherwise plain, flat vessel floor without borders or backgrounds. Both the bowstring-line borders and the intricate texturing of the rhinoceros’ surfaces distinguish the present dish from those unearthed at Hejiacun; even so, the present dish’s close resemblance to those excavated vessels confirms its Tang-dynasty origins and suggests that it likely was produced in north China, perhaps in a workshop in Chang’an. Vessels of this type were likely inspired by ancient Iranian silver from the Sassanian period (224–651) such as the seventh-century silver plate with gilt repoussé decoration representing a standing horse and now in the collection of the National Museum of Asian Art’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC (S1987.123). 22.
The present dish was made by hammering a solid piece of cast silver into shape over a dome-shaped matrix, probably of wood. After the dish had been shaped, the central motif was then executed in repoussé, by pushing a decorated matrix from the outside bottom, producing a rhino figure in low relief on the inside bottom, leaving an unevenly depressed silhouette on the outside bottom. Scales and other details were executed on the surface of the rhino’s body. The centering dot at the heart of the base—i.e., that area of the underside enclosed by the footring—and the numerous concentric circles surrounding it indicate that the dish was finished by turning on a lathe, presumably to smooth the surface and to eliminate all traces of hammering. As a finishing touch, the rhinoceros and the relief bowstrings were further enriched with amalgam gilding. The short, circular footring was separately created by hammering a narrow band of silver and then affixing it to the dish’s underside with solder.
Appreciated by the emperor and his courtiers and by connoisseurs and collectors, both ancient and modern, Tang silver vessels, with their elegant forms, stately proportions, and intriguing decoration, represent the height of Tang craftsmanship and luxury. Although taste for gold and silver vessels would wane by the end of Tang, these sumptuous vessels stand as a symbol of the cultural sophistication and high craftsmanship of the era.
Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museums, and
Senior Consultant, Christie’s
1. See: Shaanxi lishi bowuguan [Shaanxi History Museum], Hua Wu Da Tang Chun: Hejiacun yibao jingcui [Selected Treasures from Hejiacun Tang Hoard], (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe), 2003, pp. 172-175, no. 40; also see: Han Wei and Christian Deydier, Ancient Chinese Gold, (Paris: ARHIS/Les Editions d’Art et d’Histoire), 2001, no. 537.
2. See: Qi Dongfang, Tangdai jinyinqi yanjiu [Research on Tang Gold and Silver] in the series Tang yanjiu jijinhui congshu (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe), 1st ed., 1999, pp. 72-75, figs.1-173 through 1-187 (for the present bowl, see p. 74, fig. 180; for the Hejiacun bowl, see p. 73, fig. 173; for the Hakutsuru bowls, see p. 74, figs. 1-179 and 1-182).
3. See: Pierre Uldry et al., Chinesisches Gold und Silber: Die Sammlung Pierre Uldry, (Zurich, Switzerland: Museum Rietberg Zurich), 1994, p. 157, cat. no. 143.
4. Bo Gyllensvärd, Chinese Gold and Silver in the Carl Kempe Collection, (Stockholm), 1953, p. 155, no. 99.
5. See: Giuseppe Eskenazi, A Dealer’s Hand: The Chinese Art World Through the Eyes of Giuseppe Eskenazi, (London: Scala Publishers Ltd.), 2012, Plate 79; also see: Gyllensvärd, Chinese Gold and Silver in the Carl Kempe Collection, 1953, pl. 120; also see: Sotheby’s, London, Masterpieces of Chinese Precious Metalwork, Early Gold and Silver; Early Chinese White, Green, and Back Wares, 14 May 2008 (London: Sotheby’s), 2008, lot 60.
6. See: Shaanxi lishi bowuguan, Hua Wu Da Tang Chun, 2003, pp. 249-250, no. 67.
7. For information on the rhinoceros in early China, see: Sun Ji, “Gu wenwuzhong suojian zhi xiniu” [The Rhinoceros as Seen in Ancient Cultural Artifacts], Wenwu, 1982, vol. 8, pp. 80-84.
8. For information on the offering of tribute in Tang times, see: Howard J. Wechsler, Offerings of Jade and Silk: Ritual and Symbol in the Legitimation of the T’ang Dynasty, (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1985.
9. See: Wen Fong, Robert W. Bagley, Jenny F. So, et al., The Great Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition from the People’s Republic of China, (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), 1980, pp. 294-295, 320, no. 93; also see: Jason Zhixin Sun et al., Age of Empires: Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties, (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), 2017, p. 47, fig. 40.
10. See: Jason Zhixin Sun et al., Age of Empires: Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties, (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), 2017, pp. 170-171, cat. no. 92.
11. See: Yang Boda, ed., Zhongguo jinyin boli falangqi quanji [A Compendium of Chinese Gold, Silver, Glass, and Cloisonne Enamel], (Shijiazhuang: Hebei meishu chubanshe), 2002–2004, vol. 2 (Gold and Silver), pl. 32.
12. See: Sekai bijutsu daizenshu, Toyo hen [New History of World Art, East Asia], (Tokyo: Shogakkan), 1997-2001, vol. 4 (Sui and Tang), pl. 166.
13. See: Christian Deydier, Imperial Gold from Ancient China, Part II—Grosvenor House Antiques Fair — 1991, June 12 – June 22, 1991, (London: Oriental Bronzes, Ltd.), 1991, pp. 22-23, cat. no. 6.
14. See: Doreen Stoneham, “Thermoluminescence Testing of Ceramic Works of Art”, Orientations, (Hong Kong), vol. 22, no. 6, June 1990, p. 73, fig. 4.
15. See: Shoso-in Office, ed., Metal Works in the Shoso-in, (Tokyo: Nihon Keizai Shimbun Sha), 1976, pl. 21.
16. See: Qi Dongfang, “Gold and Silver Wares on the Belitung Shipwreck”, in Regina Krahl, John Guy, J. Keith Wilson, Julian Raby, eds., Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, (Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution), 2010, p. 87, figs. 67, 170 (detail).
17. See: Jason Zhixin Sun et al., Age of Empires: Art of the Qin and Han Dynasties, (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), 2017, pp. 77-80, cat. nos. 1 and 3, pp. 88-90, cat. no. 12; for additional information on early Chinese armor, see: Albert E. Dien, “A Study of Early Chinese Armor”, Artibus Asiae, 1981, vol.43 (1/2), pp. 5-66.
18. Edward H. Schafer, The Vermilion Bird: T’ang Images of the South, (Warren, CT: Floating World Editions), 2008, pp. 226-227 (first published in 1967 by Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press). For additional information on the rhinoceros in China, see Edward H. Schafer, Golden Peaches of Samarkand, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press), 1963, pp. 83-84.
19. William Raymond Gingell, The Ceremonial Usages of the Chinese, B.C. 1121, as Prescribed in the “Institutes of the Chow Dynasty Strung as Pearls” [a translation and abridgement of the Zhouli, or Rites of Zhou], (London: Smith, Elder), 1852, p. 81, pl 22.
20. See: Kathlyn Liscomb, “How the Giraffe Became a Qilin: Intercultural Signification in Ming Dynasty Arts”, in Jerome Silbergeld and Eugene Y. Wang, eds., The Zoomorphic Imagination in Chinese Art and Culture, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press), 2016, pp. 341-378.
21. See: Pauline Lunsingh Scheurleer, ed., Asiatic Art in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Meulenhoff/Landshoff), 1985, p. 76, cat. no. 56 (AK-RBK-1965-88); also see: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/AK-RBK-1965-88
22. Ann C. Gunter and Paul Jett, Ancient Iranian Metalwork in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, (Washington, DC: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art; Mainz, Germany: Distributed by P. von Zabern), 1992, pp. 39, 139-40, cat. no. 20. Also compare: Carol Michaelson, Gilded Dragons: Buried Treasures from China’s Golden Ages (London: Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Press), 1999, p. 22, fig. 5.