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Tomb Guardian


Artwork Details

Tomb Guardian
glaze and mineral pigment on earthenware
28 9/16 in x 9 5/16 in x 11 5/16 in (72.55 cm x 23.65 cm x 28.73 cm)
Gift of Jiu-Hwa Lo Upshur in memory of Mrs. Wei-Djen D. Lo


Sancai, or tri-color wares, were one of the most brilliant innovations of Tang dynasty (618–907) potters. Working with the same clay used to produce white wares, potters added iron and copper oxide colorants to create the typical three-color palette of cream, amber, and olive green. Lead flux made it possible for these colored glazes to fuse to the earthenware body at relatively low kiln temperatures. It also allowed glazes to run, which made them very difficult to control.
Sancai flourished under the patronage of the Tang elite as a ware for tomb figurines and funerary wares, such as this tomb guardian (one of a pair with UMMA 2004/2.132.1). (See UMMA 1969/2.160 for an example of a Sancai “peacock feather” funerary jar.) The market for such wares collapsed during a political crisis in the mid-eighth century.
Sancai, or tri-color glazed ware, was popular among the Tang elite for funerary goods, including fearsome composite creatures such as these which stood guard at the tombs of princes and aristocrats. Iron and copper oxide colorants were added to the glaze solutions to create the three colors of cream white, amber yellow, and olive green that are typical of the sancai palette. Lead flux made it possible for these colored glazes to fuse to the earthenware body at relatively low kiln temperatures. It also caused the glazes to run together, forming random patterns. Potters learned to exploit the expressive possibilities of the running glazes to accentuate the raw power and explosive energy emanating from the guardians.
Chinese believed that after death, the soul was freed from the body and could roam around the universe without hindrance. Family members did not like the idea of powerful ancestors, particularly those with unsettled grievances, wandering around unrestrained, so guardians were posted at the doorways of tombs to keep spirits from getting out as well as from coming in. Wandering spirits would have to think twice about passing through portals watched over by these fantastic hoofed creatures with menacing bestial or human faces and flaming manes or serrated wings. These composite creatures of clay, known as qitou (“earth spirit”) in Chinese, must have touched the eighth- century imagination the way sci-fi cyborgs of titanium and modern technology have captured ours in the twenty-first millennium.
(Label for UMMA Chinese Gallery Opening Rotation, March 2009)

Subject Matter:

An earthenware zhenmushou (镇墓兽), or "tomb guardian beast", with sancai (三彩), or "three color", glaze. It is a mingqi  (明器), or "bright object", of the Tang Dynasty (618-906). The head would have been painted in detail with mineral pigments to give a realistic quality. Pieces with both sancai and mineral pigments would have been expensive to produce. 

Relics from one of the golden eras of Chinese art and culture, these fierce beast figures were always placed in pairs in tombs that often contained numerous ceramic figures of humans, animals, and supernatural creatures. Because of their position near the tomb entrance and their ferocious demeanor, such figures are thought to have been sentinels protecting the deceased from evil spirits.

Developed during the Six Dynasties period (222 - 589), spirit beast pairs always included one figure with a human face and one with a bestial face.  Tomb guardians with canine or feline bodies, seated on their haunches with straight forelegs, also were produced in the Tang dynasty, when ceramics were commonly fired with colorful lead-silicate glazes known as sancai or "three-color" glaze.

Physical Description:

An earthenware figure of an anthropomorphic form consisting of a lion-like body with strong hoofed feet, wings, and a human face with central flame-like horns and large, furry and pointed ears. It is seated on a rock-like base, and except for the head it is covered in amber, green, and cream runny glazes. One of a pair with 2004/2.132.1.

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