This impressively large and powerfully modelled horse, with its well-preserved sancai glaze, captures the spirit and power of this celebrated animal and reveals the technical accomplishment and stylistic maturity of Chinese ceramic sculpture at the peak of the Tang dynasty. The most magnificent horses, immortalized in Chinese literature and the visual arts, were the Ferghana horses introduced into central China from the West during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). These horses were known for their speed, power and stamina, and were sometimes referred to as ‘thousand li horses’, after the belief that they were able to cover a thousand li in a single day.
Large sancai-glazed pottery horses featuring similar elaborate trappings, in particular this combination of cream-colored tassels on the chest and foliate medallions on the rump, include the figure in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, illustrated by Y. Mino and J. Robinson in Beauty and Tranquility: The Eli Lilly Collection of Chinese Art, Indianapolis, 1983, p.174-75, pl. 61 (26 in. high); the figure illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, Chinese Art from The Collection of James W. and Marilynn Alsdof, The Arts Club of Chicago, 21 September – 13 November 1970, c21 (22 ½ in. high); and the figure illustrated by E. Schloss in Ancient Chinese Ceramic Sculpture, Stamford, Connecticut, 1977, vol. II, col. pl. V (26 ½ in. high). All of these figures feature amber or brown-glazed bodies and cream-glazed muzzles, manes and forelocks. Like the current figure, the Lilly and Alsdorf horses each have a saddle covered with a cloth pulled into pleats on either side, which is set on a blanket draped over the horse’s back. The horse illustrated by Schloss has green-glazed hooves like the present figure, but is draped over its back with a green-glazed blanket richly textured to simulate fur.
The foliate plaques hung from the straps on the rump are of a type that has been labeled 'hazel-leaf' or 'apricot-leaf'. For actual examples of similar gilt-bronze ornaments from the tomb of Princess Yongtai, buried in AD 706, see Y. Mino and J. Robinson, op. cit., p. 174, pl. 61, fig. E.