This exceptional pillow is rare in both its subject and its decoration. Pillows in the form of adults, as opposed to children, are relatively rare, and human-form pillows decorated in three-color glazes even more so. The posture of the figure on this pillow is particularly interesting. He appears to be fully prostrated, but with his head raised and his arms held forward offering what appears to be a gift. This relates to the Song dynasty sancai pillow in the form of a child offering a circlet excavated in 1975 from a tomb in Mituo township, Taihu county, Anhui province (illustrated in Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China - 8 - Anhui, Beijing, 2008, no. 170). However, it also relates to earlier figures of adult courtiers, which were not apparently intended as pillows. A painted earthenware Tang dynasty figure in similar posture of full prostration, with his whole body lowered, was excavated in 1953 from the tomb of Di Zhang Wen (d. 744) at Xianyang, Shaanxi province, and is illustrated in Wenwu, 1954:10, pl. 55, and by J. Fontein and R. Hempel in China, Korea, Japan, Berlin, 1968, pl. XIX. This figure wears a tall courtier's hat. A similar Tang dynasty figure, not fully prostrated but bending forward from a kneeling position, was sold in these rooms, 22 March 1999, lot 251. Both these figures are larger and were not designed as pillows.
Certain aspects of the current pillow suggest an association with the Liao, which would make the piece exceptionally rare. Ceramic pillows are not normally found in Liao tombs. Nevertheless, a number of Liao ceramic pillows have been found outside a funerary context. The majority of the excavated Liao pillows are decorated with sancai glazes - either in combination or separately. A sancai-glazed Liao dynasty pillow with similarly shaped upper surface to that of the current pillow, but with a molded trapezoidal plinth, excavated in 1978 from a tomb at the No. 2 Forest Farm, Tongliao City, Inner Mongolia, illustrated in Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China - 4 - Inner Mongolia, Beijing, 2008, no. 107. Also illustrated is a Liao amber-glazed pillow of trapezoidal form with molded sides was excavated in 1985 at Buhetehada, Bayan'erdeng, Balinyouqi, Inner Mongolia, no. 64.
Indeed, in this use of lead-fluxed green, amber and cream glazes from the sancai palette, the Liao kilns appear to embrace the traditions of the Tang kilns more enthusiastically than either the Song or the Jin kilns. Also following Tang dynasty traditions, the Liao kilns often combined these glazes with sprig-molded applied robes of the current pillow figure. A Liao dynasty green-glazed kundika, with a wealth of sprig-molded applied relief roundels and forms suggesting pendent jewels, was excavated in 1988 from the Yexian pagoda deposit, Miyun county, and is illustrated in Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China - 1 - Beijing, Beijing, 2008, no. 40. It may also be significant that a green-glazed Tang dynasty vase with floral appliqus was excavated in 1960 from the Tuchengzi City site in Helinge'er county, Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, and is illustrated in Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China - 4 - Inner Mongolia, Beijing, 2008, no. 8. While they contain flowers, rather than the animals seen on the robe of the figure in the current pillow, these appliqus are of similar type. Also of interest is a Northern Song globular jar with stupa-shaped cover and high stand, which was excavated in 2005 from a Song dynasty tomb at Gangxicun, Lincheng county, Hebei province - just to the south of Liao territory. The stand is inscribed dating it to the Zhihe period (AD 1054-56). The jar has green and amber sancai glazes and also sprig-molded applied relief roundels, of similar type to those on the current figure, as seen in Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China - 3 - Hebei, Beijing,
2008, no. 115.
One of the few other examples of a human-form sancai-glazed pillow is a Song dynasty pillow in the form of a reclining child holding a lotus, the leaf of which forms the upper surface of the pillow. This pillow was excavated in 1985 at Boshan, Zibo City, Shandong province, and is illustrated in Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China - 6 - Shandong, Beijing, 2007, no. 139. A Song dynasty sancai-glazed pillow in the form of a kowtowing child, apparently presenting a circlet, was excavated in 1975 from a tomb in Mituo township, Taihu county, Anhui province. This pillow is smaller and simpler than the current example, but is similar in its complete prostration of the body with head raised, no plinth, and in the fact that it is apparently proffering a gift. However, the excavated pillow does not have an additional surface placed on the figure's back - the head would have rested directly on the back. See Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China - 8 - Anhui, Beijing, 2008, no. 170).
Pillows in the form of male children holding either a lingzhi fungus - symbolizing long life - or a lotus leaf - suggesting the successive birth of sons - came to prominence during the Song dynasty. A Ding ware example of a boy holding a lingzhi fungus in the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, is illustrated by He Li in Chinese Ceramics, London, 1996, no. 218, while a similar Ding ware pillow with the boy holding a lotus leaf was formerly with Eskenazi, illustrated in Song ceramics 10th to 13th century, London, November 2003, p. 50, no. 21. Ding ware pillows where the head rest is provided by the back of the child, rather than a fungus or a lotus leaf, are in the collections of the Palace Museum, Beijing and the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 32 - Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (I), Hong Kong, 1996, p. 46, no. 39; and Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ting Ware White Porcelain, Taipei, 1987, no. 15, respectively. Although the figure on the current pillow is dressed in adult clothes, the face is full-cheeked and has an expression of innocence. It may be that it is intended to represent an older boy or young man.
Girl children also appear as pillows in the Song dynasty. A Cizhou-type pillow in the form of a reclining girl decorated in white, black and amber slip under a colorless glaze was excavated in 1978 from a Jin dynasty tomb in Zhangzi county, Shanxi province (illustrated in Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China - 5 - Shanxi, Beijing, 2008, no. 44. A similar pillow in the form of a reclining girl was excavated in 1983 at Huangling county, Shaanxi province. This figure bears an inscription dating it to the sixteenth year of Dading - equivalent to AD 1176, and is illustrated in Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China - 15 - Shaanxi,
Beijing, 2008, no. 171.
One of the few other examples of a human form sancai glazed pillows is a Song dynasty pillow in the form of a reclining child holding a lotus, the leaf of which forms the upper surface of the pillow. This pillow was excavated in 1985 at Boshan, Zibo City, Shandong province (illustrated in Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China 6 Shandong, Beijing, 2007, no. 139). Adult female figures have also been found supporting pillows, although these are usually white-glazed. A Ding ware white-glazed Northern Song pillow in the form of a reclining lady was excavated in 1985 from the Ding kiln site at Jiancicun, Quyang county, Hebei province. This figure has her head turned to the side and is resting on a low plinth. (illustrated in Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China 3 Hebei, Beijing, 2008, no. 120). Another Song dynasty white-glazed reclining figure, which originally supported a pillow was excavated in 1973 at Beizhancun, Quyang county (ibid., no. 143). This figure too reclines on a low plinth.
Lastly, it is interesting to note that a comparison may be made between the clothing of the current pillow figure and two painted figures, each holding a guduo sceptre, which stand on either side of the door on a wooden coffin excavated from a Liao tomb of a woman of high status at Tuerji Hill tomb (illustrated in Gilded Splendor - Treasures of China's Liao Empire (907-1125), Hsueh-man Shen (ed.), New York, 2006, p. 62, fig. 33). The robes of these figures are belted at the waist, decorated with gilt roundels, and below their robes the figures wear boots. On their heads they appear to wear similar hats to that worn by the pillow figure. One of the painted figures appears to be wearing something resembling a torque around his neck. In the same tomb the lid of the inner coffin is decorated with three golden dragon roundels (ibid., fig. 34), which also share some similarities with the roundels on the pillow figure's robe.