East Asia, China, Western Zhou, ca. 1045 to 771 BCE. A handsome and ornately decorated jue, a ritual wine vessel cast from bronze using the newly invented complex pottery section mold. The vessel stands atop three long, thin legs that flare out at the feet. The body of the vessel is cylindrical, with a small handle on one side, a long spout with steep sides, and a broad, leaf-shaped mouth. Twin projections capped by flaring cylindrical finials may have once had a lid attached to them. The body is decorated with reliefs of taotie masks, their noses formed of projecting flanges, on a background of leiwen, symbols of thunder and clouds. Size: 9.6" W x 10.75" H (24.4 cm x 27.3 cm)
The taotie is one of the "four fiends" or "four evil creatures" of Chinese mythology, and is a particularly fascinating and ancient symbol - seen on Shang Dynasty bronzes. In the Lushi Chunqiu, known in English as Master Lu's Spring and Autumn Annals, a Chinese encyclopedia compiled around 239 BCE, the taotie is described thusly: "The taotie on Zhou bronzes has a head but no body. When it eats people, it does not swallow them, but harms them" (16/3a Prophecy). This and other ancient descriptions of the creature suggest that it related to making food offerings/sacrifices for the insatiable spirits of the dead. Some scholars believe that the creature is part of the mysterious communication between people and the gods.
We owe the preservation of these ancient bronzes to their burial, either in storage pits, where they were hastily hidden by fleeing members of a defeated elite house, or, more commonly, in tombs. During the Shang dynasty, members of the royalty were accompanied in the afterlife by their bronzes, ceramics, weapons, amulets, and ornaments, and even the human and animal entourage that surrounded them in life: servants, bodyguards, horses, chariots, and charioteers. Each tomb had a set of specialized bronze vessels, of which the jue was just one designed to hold wine.
See a similar example at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and another that sold at Christie's for $32,500.
Provenance: private Ventura County, California, USA collection
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