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A Painted Pottery Figure of a Camel (Chinese, Tang Dynasty, from a Christies’ Auction)

Longtime readers know my fondness for Chinese porcelain.  Today’s post features an especially characteristic (and magnificent) style of ceramic art object from the Tang Dynasty–one of the golden ages of Chinese civilization. Founded by the shrewd and intelligent Li family (whom you might remember from this thrilling & violent post), the Tang dynasty lasted from 618 AD-907 AD and was one of the most powerful and prosperous imperial dynasties.  At the apogee of the Tang era, China had over 80 million families and exerted near hegemonic control throughout Southeast Asia and Central Asia.  Additionally, China served as a cultural model for Japan and Korea, where traditions established a thousand years ago still linger, and it controlled North Korea outright for a generation after winning a war against the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdoms (and their Japanese allies).

Camel of Earthenware with sancai glaze (Late 7th-early 8th century, The Avery Brundage Collection at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)

Alien visitors to Earth in the 9thcentury AD would have had no difficulties choosing where to land in order to talk to the most prosperous and advanced people of the time.  During this period great medicinal breakthroughs were made, gunpowder was invented, and printing became commonplace.  The silk-road trade, which had been created during the Western Han era, grew in importance and magnitude.

Tang Camel with Turkic Groom/Rider

During the Northern Dynasties period (317-581AD) porcelain camels were first created as grave goods so that merchants could take some of their trade empire with them to the next world (a Buddhist innovation—since previous Chinese potentates were inhumed with actual human and animal sacrifice rather than porcelain stand-ins).  The sculptures are modeled in the shape of Bactrian camels, which were the principle mode of transportation through the great southwestern deserts of China. Caravans of silk, porcelain and other luxury goods would set out through the barren wastes headed ultimately for Persia or Europe.

Gray terracotta camel in a walking stance (from Little River Asian Arts)

Tang camels are magnificently expressive works of art.  Rich tricolor glazes of gold, green and brown were dribbled over the animals and then fired, giving an impression akin to abstract expressionism.  Although initially stiff and geometrical, the camels become more lifelike as the Tang dynasty wore on.  A new sense of realism pervaded art and the camels are portrayed bellowing to each other or striding through the desert sand.  Sometimes the camels include riders like Chinese merchants or Sogdian handlers (equipped with Turkic peaked hats).   Tang porcelain camels make it easy to imagine the exotic trade routes of medieval China, where the wealth of the world poured into the middle kingdom across an ocean of sand.

Another Tang Camel with Triple glaze (and human figure)

Nüwa

Nüwa was a serpent deity from ancient Chinese mythology. Sometimes she is pictured as a gorgeous woman, other times she is shown possessing a woman’s head but the body of a powerful snake. Nüwa was the creator of humankind and remained a powerful benefactor to people and all living creatures (many of which were also her handiwork).

When the world was new, Nüwa walked through empty plains and valleys.  Perceiving that creation was very desolate and lonely she began to craft living creatures in order to fill the waste.  On the first day she made chickens and sent them clucking through creation.  On the second day she fashioned dogs to run through the forest. On the third day she created sheep to graze the plains. On the fourth day she crafted pigs to root through the earth.  On the fifth day she made gentle cows and truculent bulls. On the sixth day she was inspired and crafted horses.  On the seventh day she was walking near a river and she saw her beautiful reflection.  She knelt down in the yellow clay and began to hand sculpt figures similar to herself.  As she set the lovely little forms down, they came to life and began to call out to her as mother.  All day Nüwa built more and more of the little people, after her long labors, her energy was waning.  To finish the job she picked up a strand of ivy and dipped in the fecund mud.  Then she flicked the mud across the lands.  Everywhere the little blobs fell, people sprung up, coarser and less lovely then the hand-made folk, but perfectly serviceable.  Thus did Nüwa create humankind, separating from the very beginning the rich and noble people from the commoners by means of her crafting methods.

Fuxi and Nüwa, an ancient painting from Xinjiang

Nüwa loved her creations and she continued to look after them quietly (for she was modest and disliked effusive worship).  She took Fuxi, the first of the three sovereigns of ancient China as her spouse.  Fuxi was a hero in his own right and is said to have invented fishing and trapping.  There are many ancient pictures and representations of the happy couple entwined as huge loving snake people.  However one day the great black water dragon Gong Gong put her marriage and all of her work in peril.  The story of what happened subsequently is of great interest (and bears directly on my favorite work of Chinese literature) so I will tell it completely tomorrow.

Nüwa in serpent guise

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