Jar in the Shape of a Stupa
China, Shaanxi, Shandong, or Henan province
Northern Qi period or Sui dynasty (550–577/581–618)
Late 6th or early 7th century
Earthenware with traces of painted polychrome pigment
19 1/4 in. (48.9 cm)
AP 1994.06 a,b,c
Currently On View
This unusual pottery jar illustrates the early assimilation of Buddhist motifs to the decoration of Chinese mortuary objects. The swelling, ovoid body resembles the shape of a stupa (in China, a pagoda), a traditional Indian structure that houses relics of the Buddha and marks the site of a sanctuary. The shoulder of the vase is decorated with a band of lotus roundels above a band of monster masks, both in relief. The cover, which imitates the top of the stupa, consists of a series of simplified “umbrellas” crowned by a jewel and a band of relief monster masks. With the introduction of Buddhism into China in the third century A.D., the lotus became a pervasive motif in secular as well as religious art, symbolizing both the Buddha himself and Buddhist purity. The fantastic monster masks have their origin far to the west, where they may have been borrowed from the Gorgon mask of Greek mythology. In Chinese Buddhist iconography these masks assume the role of guardians of the Buddhist law. Here they may have served to expel evil influences from the grave, as this jar would have been among the diverse assemblage of objects included in a Chinese tomb of the late sixth or early seventh century. In this capacity, it may also have functioned as a container for some relic or sacred token belonging to the deceased.
(Oriental Art Gallery, Ltd., London); purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1994.