Trapezoidal Vase, No. Qi dynasty. 21.6cm

Suggested Attribution: Northern Qi (550 to 577), Size: 21.6cm

This vase is very geometric in that the body has vertical trapezoidal shape and the lid has a horizontal one.  And the four feet are of rectangular form.  Crowning the trapezoidal isosceles shaped lid stands a 3-dimensional creature that is realistic in every aspect except the tail, which is divided into two curling segments.  This and the other creature crawling up the side and with head over the vessel’s mouth appear to have more canine characteristics than any other quadruped, which points to possible pre-Islamic Persian influence when the dog had Zoroastrian favor; and the architectonic elements, such as the Ionic Capital shaped platform of the Phoenix, point to the possible Hellenistic influence of Central Asian, as well.

The two wider sides contain what may be the largest Tao-tieh portrait ever carved in nephrite jade.  In terms of fine relief carving as pictorial art, can there be one better?  Please scroll down for more description and discussion.

Please click the magnifying glass icon to enlarge to full screen and closely examine the face of this magnificent monster.  See how the feline dragons have crawled through each side of the mouth behind each fang and climb upward until their heads reach both left and right upper corners and their tails remain trailing through each corner of the monsters mouth and end outside it in a spiral.  Note the detail and cleavage of the tongue and the detail and liveliness of the eyes.  View the bifurcated horns that grow out of each side of the nose, and don’t miss the large, finely carved claws of the ‘dragon,’ as well.  Between the horns the top of the head is covered with incised scales which terminate at the top with a scroll that is mindful of an Ionic capital except that it is pointed upward in the center.  And above that is a waisted rectangle with diagonal incisions. The downward point of the upper lip above the 4 humanoid type front teeth between the two outward angled sharp pointed fangs are other fascinating atypical features of this face.  A carving with Tao-tieh features including horns and fangs is usually referred to as a Tao-tieh “mask”.  And the variations of these mask like features are predictable.  But this is not a ‘mask’.  It is a face with a gentle rather than fearful expression.  And a most original, creative and fascinating face it is. Read more of the other two sides below.

On each of the two narrow sides a ‘horned dog’ and a phoenix creatures are carved in full relief.

The dog headed creature has fully curved  horns and clings to the side as if in the act of just holding on.   There are incisions on the back of the head between the horns and running down each side of the spine, which continues to form a quadrifurcated tail.  It has long, relatively straight claws, more canine than feline, as is the shape of the head.

And at the top, standing on an isosceles type trapezoidal lid is another quadruped hybrid creature without the horns of the one above, but with similar large fangs and long sheathless claws.  The compact body and thick legs lack the lithesome suppleness of a feline, and the long ears and round eyes are also un-feline.  The turned up and flattened snout bears the well carved, curved fangs and is has two deep furrows of brow behind it.  The spine has ‘hair incisions’ on both sides and the long bifurcated tail with both segments ending in curls is, of course, a feature of fantasy.  It is also interesting to note that all of the creatures represented on this vase, even the feline dragons, have decidedly round eyes, except for the large Tao-tieh.

The trapezoidal platform the guardian creature stands upon has a Chinese style feline dragon ‘mask’ carved in bas relief on both long sides of the platform, flanked by a stylized serpentine body terminating in wide spirals.

On the second of the narrower sides, one finds a Phoenix in full relief standing on a pedestal of Ionic capital form in deep relief.

The thick claw like talons of the bird  are decidedly pointed inward; the front wing plumage is open and flared inward while the tail feathers are also open, erect, and flared outwardly, opposite of the wings.  And there is one feather, below the tail feathers, that curls downward.  The bird’s beak is parrot like curving strongly inward over the lower part, and the double crest arches bifurcated to each side of the head.  This Phoenix is mindful of those found on ‘champions vases’ standing on top of a quadruped animal and between the two cylinders that comprise the vase.  Below the Phoenix is backlighted by a penlight beam.

And again below, the Tao-tieh monster face is backlighted, showing the beautiful translucence of this white nephrite material.


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