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Phoenix crown worn by Emperor Wanli’ s Empress Xiaoduan, Wanli period (1573-1620), Ming Dynasty.

In Dynastic China the most important ceremonial objects around which the Emperor’s power was focused was not a crown but rather the imperial seals.  However that does not mean that ornate jeweled crowns were not a part of court life. Phoenix crowns were worn by the empress and other exalted noblewomen on ceremonial occasions.  These headdresses were adorned with intricate sculptures of dragons, phoenixes, and pheasants made from precious materials.  The crowns were highly ornamental and were literally encrusted with gold, turquoise, kingfisher feathers, pearls, and gemstones.

The 6-dragon-3-phoenix crown of a Ming dynasty Empress (3 of the dragons are at the back of the crown)

First crafted in the Tang Dynasty, phoenix crowns changed many times in accordance with Chinese fashion but they found their greatest era of popularity in the Ming dynasty when the wearer’s status was indicated by the number of dragons, phoenixes and pheasants on her crown.  The empress was allowed to wear a crown with 12 dragons and 9 phoenixes, but a less-favored concubine or minor princess might be forced to endure a mere 7 pheasants.

Wu Zetian (624-705 AD) the only de facto ruling Empress of China, shown wearing a Phoenix Crown in the Tang Era

A Phoenix Crown adorning a Song Dynasty Empress (from a Song portrait painting)

Phoenix Crown by 张雅涵

Phoenix crowns—or similarly elaborate jeweled crowns are also associated with weddings and the juxtaposition of the bride’s red robes (red is the super magic happy lucky color of China) against the bright blue of the turquoise and kingfisher feathers makes for a bold visual presentation.

Traditional Chinese Wedding Garb

Traditional Chinese Wedding

This is Das Paradiesgärtleina, a superb gothic panel painting created in 1410 by an unknown German artist known only as the “Upper Rhenish Master”.  Various Saints are oriented around Baby Jesus in a lovely walled garden.  The Virgin Mary is at the top left reading a book.  To her left Saint Dorothy plucks cherries (then, as now, symbolic of purity) from a stylized cherry tree.  Saint Barbara draws clear water from a font, as Saint Catherine helps Baby Jesus play a psalter.  To the right St. George sits on the grass with a small dragon dead beside him.  He is earnestly talking to the Archangel Michael who has a black demon chained at his feet.  St. Oswald, leaning on a tree trunk, seems almost to serve as St. George’s squire.  It has been surmised that this painting might depict a knight (in the guise of St. George) entering into heaven.

The real delight of the painting lies in its lovely details.  This painting carefully and individually depicts over 27 plants, 12 species of bird, and two insects. Very few paintings depict nature with such precision.

Here is a list of the identified plants:

Aquilegia
Veronica
Strawberry
Alchemilla
Daisy
Wallflower
Vinca
Cherry
Clover
Lily
Snowflake
Lily of the Valley
Malva
Oxeye daisy
Dianthus
Paeonia
Rose
Primula veris
Iris
Mustard
Red deadnettle
Violet
Plantago
Chrysanthemum
Aster
Hypericum
Matthiola

Here is a list of the birds:

Common Kingfisher
Great Tit
Eurasian Bullfinch
Golden Oriole
Chaffinch
European Robin
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Bohemian Waxwing
European Goldfinch
Long-tailed Tit
Blue Tit
Hoopoe

The work is painted in a tradition of Maria im Rosenhag (Mary in the rose bower), but the Upper Rhenish master has made the convention his own by presenting a garden where virtue and joy, personified by the holy family and the saints, exert easy control over the natural and the supernatural alike.

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