Rhyton Cobra Protome 19cm

This relatively large rhytom features a unique iconographic blend of Chinese scroll decorative motifs carved in relief of ‘L’ and heart shape, the classic Tao-Tieh mask under the pouring lip of the vessel’s mouth and directly above the head of the fully erect Caspian Cobra, and two phoenix heads with long stylized, serpent-like necks flank the cobra.

The highly poisonous cobra is a sacred creature in ancient Egyptian and Indian cultures, but very rare in Central Asia as the Caspian Cobra and not to be found in China, according to our research.  This vessel is yet another strong reinforcement of Central Asian, especially Persian artistic influence on China, resulting in art of hybrid, ‘sinicized’ design elements.

Please click video bar below for a 360 deg. ‘in the round’ rotational viewing.  It can be seen full screen with icon on the right end of bar and it can be stopped at any time with stop icon to study a frame in detail.

Following document on rhyta is by Barbara M. Soper,  Journal of the Old World Archaeological Study, Ancient Rhytons (rhyta).  In this overview of the world history of the rhyton, the number and variety of creatures represented as protomes and relief carvings is noteworthy, as is the rarity of realistic serpents in general and the Cobra in particular.

The highly poisonous cobra is a sacred creature in ancient Egyptian and Indian cultures, but very rare in Central Asia as the Caspian Cobra and not to be found in our research for China.

Bronze cobra as Goddess Tefnut, Dyn. 17


Period: Egypt, 2nd Intermediate Period, Dynasty 17, Intef VII/Sekhemreheruhermaat
Dating: 1640 BC–1600 BC
Origin: Egypt, Upper Egypt, Thebes
Material: Bronze
Physical: 9cm. (3.5 in.) – 275 g. (9.7 oz.)
Catalog: MET.SS.00374

This large solid bronze Cobra was most probably part of a pharaoh’s regalia—a royal jewel that was affixed to a royal ruling staff or scepter as a symbol of the king’s (and therefore the kingdom’s) invulnerability (see #443 in this collection). 

Not long after rhyta vessels reached China via Central Asia, the inevitable sinicization of style made imprint.  The protome or carving of horn form terminus was no longer the fore quarters of a realistic creature as with Hellenistic and Persian originals; they were replaced by Chinese creatures and stylization that continued to change from Han to Qing.  But suffice to say, by the time of  W. Han rhyta, the protome with hole was gone from Chinese taste for the most part and the surface decor was thoroughly sinicized as best reflected by the magnificent writhing felines in full relief on the Edwards & Bishop W. Han rhyton and the head of the dragon creatures in full relief on the Han dynasty rhyton in the NPM, Taipei.   The document below shows a Parthian ‘true rhyton’ from the Metropolitan Museum, NYC, with animal protome with hole in chest for slow, ritual pouring for cleansing or imbibing as from a wine skin vessel.  The holes in the creature protome’s were usually in the mouth or in the chest.  The Chinese stopped using  protomes with holes, making it possible to pour from the mouth of the funnel shaped vessel only.  In 40 years of collecting we have only seen one Chinese jade vessel with rhyta function of pouring hole in the mouth of a protome creature and this vessel is not of horn body shape.  This vessel is now in this collection and may be seen in process of pouring function in the Rhyton Vessels category as Yi Cup ‘true’ Rhyton on this website.

Open document link below for the Metropolitan Museum’s Parthian Silver Rhyton discussed above.


After the archaic rhyta of Han, more hybrid Chinese-Central Asian ones most likely passed back and forth as gifts or tribute until the Song dynasty introduced purposeful archaistic renditions with monster heads carved in relief engorging the bottom of the horn shaped body of the vessel while continuing the high relief feline dragons on the body’s surface, often with one of the ‘dragons’ with head over the rim of the vessel’s mouth.

The rhyton vessels below are called ‘archaistic’ (fang-gu) in that they were motivated by the ancient or archaic l ones.  The emperor Qianlong encouraged this as honoring the past and Chinese tradition.  He called these fang-gu, and some archaistic pieces approximate the ancient in quality of stone and workmanship.  Most, however, are like the examples below,  which are not only smaller, but inferior in every way: stone, craftsmanship, and aesthetic conception.  The changes to the Central Asian rhyton under Chinese influence were at first to add apotropaic creatures, such as horned dragons, serpentine felines, and tao-tieh monster heads.  This included staining and degrading the jade to make it look ancient: antiquing of sorts, as exemplified by these.

Jade Rhyton 15.2cm ht. – “Archaistic, Song/Ming” attribution by Christie’s NYC.

 With this piece, one can see that the detail of the monster head has been diminished and a more abstract head and mouth results; still, however with projecting horn type features that form 2 legs of a support tripod for the free standing capability that didn’t exist with archaic Chinese rhyta.

This rhyton was also sold by Christie’s as Song/Ming and their Essay, which gives a comparable published as early as 1948! … reads:  “Jade vessels of this type have been dated from the Song to the Ming dynasty and appear to be based on Han dynasty prototypes such as the jade rhyton from the tomb of the King of Nanyue at Canton illustrated by Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, The British Museum, 1995, p. 70, fig. 61. The bifurcated tail or mane seen on the Nanyue cup carried through into the later archaistic interpretations, which also included bands of archaistic scrolls and usually the addition of Han style chi dragons, as seen on the present rhyton. Compare the similar jade rhyton from the collection of Mr. H.F. Parfitt, included in the O.C.S. exhibition, Chinese Jades, London, 1948, pl. VII, no. 118, which was dated Song.”

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