Published: April 3, 2012
For the ancient Chinese, life in the afterworld was as important as one’s existence on earth. For this reason, the dead were laid to rest in tombs provisioned with mingqi, or “spirit articles,” for the deceased’s journey into the afterlife.
From April 12 through June 6, Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum of Art explores this fascinating world in its latest exhibition, “Immortality of the Spirit: Chinese Funerary Art from the Han and Tang Dynasties.”
The exhibition is drawn from the collection of Jane and Leopold Swergold and features 13 examples of pottery funerary objects from the Han (206 BC′20 AD) and Tang (618‹07) imperial dynasties. A free public opening and reception takes place from 5 to 7 pm on Thursday, April 12.
While personal possessions and items used in daily life could be interred with the dead, mingqi were made specifically for funerary purposes and considered a mark of high status, hence restricted to imperial and elite tombs. Burial figures and furnishings were exhibited during lavish funerary rites before being sealed in the tombs for which they were intended.
These objects, like the tombs themselves, communicated the social status of the occupant. The wealthier the family, the more elaborate the tomb, and the finer †and more numerous †the funerary objects that accompanied the deceased on his or her journey into the next world.
Tombs were also seen as gateways to everlasting life. Thus, symbols of immortality commonly appear on Han and Tang funerary objects, such as the cloud-filled mountain landscape representing the abode of the immortals on the Hill Jar (Han Dynasty), on view in the exhibition.
Clay tomb figurines proliferated in the Han dynasty, replacing an earlier tradition of human and animal sacrifice. Despite this humane shift, the basic principle remained the same: everything needed in life was also needed in death, including horses, chariots, farm animals, guards, attendants, entertainers and vessels for lavish banquets. The pieces on display from this era include a seated entertainer and a figure of a dancer. These objects, like all mingqi, were deliberately made to appear distinct from their original counterparts through alterations in material, color, size, technique or function.
The work of Tang artisans reflects the influence of the many cultures with which they came into contact both in their capital city of Chang’an and elsewhere. It is not unusual, for example, to find exotic symbols, motifs and shapes more closely associated with the arts of India, Persia, Syria and even Greece in Tang art. The two grooms on view in the exhibition have Persian facial features; apt reminders of both the international flavor of this dynasty and the historical fact that Tang emperors consolidated and maintained their martial power by importing not only horses but horsemen into China.
The Bellarmine Museum of Art is at 1073 North Benson Road. For more information, www.fairfield.edu/museum or 203-254-4046.
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