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Large bronze head (Sanxingdui, Circa 1300-1200 BC, cast bronze)

Large bronze head (Sanxingdui, Circa 1300-1200 BC, cast bronze)

The traditional narrative of Chinese civilization is that the Han people (who originated on the fertile central plains around the Yellow River) invented cities, writing, advanced agriculture, bronzework, and Chinese civilization in general. The first great era of Han Chinese civilization was the Shang “dynasty” which lasted from 1600 BC to 1046 BC (although stories persist of an earlier—perhaps mythical—Xia dynasty). After the Shang age, the superior Han gradually spread through all of China incorporating lesser peoples into their greater hegemony (which endures to this day as the mighty nation we call China). This narrative was called into question in 1986 when workers at the Lanxing Second Brick Factory in Sichuan discovered an ancient pit full of exceedingly weird and magnificent bronze statues.

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Archaeologists flocked to the site and began researching the civilization which was behind these strange works or art. It became apparent that the bronzeworks came from a culture which was contemporary to Shang dynasty China, but which was not directly connected. These ancient people are known as the Sanxingdui culture. They flourished in the Sichuan region, but, aside from the self-evident fact that they were gifted bronze artists, very little is known about the. Archaeologists speculate that the Sanxingdui people lived unified under a strong centralized theocracy in a walled city; also some Chinese scholars identify the Sanxingdui with the Shu kingdom (which is mentioned occasionally in extremely ancient Shang-era sources). I would love to tell you more, but since the Sanxingdui left no recorded history, that is virtually all we know about the creators of these exquisite bug-eyed sculptures and masks. It is believed that some natural disaster or invasion wiped out their city-state and the survivors became integrated with the Ba culture which were in turn swallowed up by the Chin Empire.

 

Bronze Mask with protruding Eyes (Sanxingdui, circa 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

Bronze Mask with protruding Eyes (Sanxingdui, circa 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

Whatever the truth about them, they made amazing art. In addition to the huge alien faces, animals such as snakes, fish, and birds abound in Sanxingdui artwork—as do zoomorphic combination animals and fantasy creatures like dragons. Practical items such as axes and chariot wheels were also found.  Naturally there is a vocal minority out there who insist that Sanxingdui culture was influenced by aliens, Atlantis, or whatever other supernatural entity du jour is selling books, but to find out more about them, we are going to have to wait for more discoveries.

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals supporting bronze humanoid figures (Sanxingdui, ca. 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

A sacrificial altar with several four-legged animals supporting bronze humanoid figures (Sanxingdui, ca. 1300-1200 BC, bronze)

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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