This exceptionally fine pair of guardian figures is remarkable not only for the liveliness of their modelling but for the skillful painting and lavish use of gold in their decoration. Ferocious figures such as these were placed in pairs in the tombs of members of the Tang dynasty elite. They have been referred to by a number of different names, but in recent years the term most usually applied to them in Chinese literature is zhenmushou, or 'tomb guardian creatures'. This is in keeping with their function, since their strange physical forms and fierce expressions were intended to emphasize their power over evil and their role of protecting the tomb occupant from evil spirits. These creatures appear in two essential types. One type has a snarling animal head, with prominent canine teeth and a rather leonine muzzle topped by a pair of curved horns. This type, as in the case of the current example, usually has either dragon-like claws or lion's clawed feet. The second type has an almost human face, topped by what looks like either a long plume of hair or a long single, spiralled horn and with large ears on either side of the head. This type, like the other current example, usually has cloven hooves. Both types can have additional horns and flames rising from their heads, arms and shoulders. In some instances the human-faced creature has weapons, such as halberds or tridents protruding from it. An example with a trident at the back of its head is the sancai example 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 Museum, Singapore, 1991, p. 92. In the case of the current example, however, the creature merely has a protruding dorsal spine and flames or flattened horns. Simpler examples of both types of zhenmushou, in the same poses as the current figures, excavated in 1972 at Hanshen Stockade, Xi'an, Shaanxi, were also included in the exhibition catalogue The Silk Road - Treasures of Tang China, p. 93.
The current pair of tomb guardian creatures is particularly well modelled and effectively painted, with gold included to add richness to their appearance. The ceramic artist has managed to imbue the double-horned figure with a splendidly dramatic feeling of movement, as if he is about to pounce upon some emanation of evil, and indeed he appears to have already slain the boar on whose neck his right foot is firmly planted. The single-horned creature sits, with straight back and front legs parallel, looking forward with menacing gaze. The two figures have been imaginatively painted with distinctive markings, which can be clearly seen, as much of the original pigment on the figures has been preserved.
The results of Oxford Authentication Ltd. thermoluminescence test nos. C298a45 and C298a44 are consistent with the dating of this lot.