CATALOGUE NUMBER 0423
LARGE FAMILLE VERTE ROULEAU VASE
KANGXI PERIOD (1661-1722)
Height: 29 ¼ inches
Collection of John L. Severence (1863-1936)
Cleveland Museum of Art, prior to September 2000
Christie's New York, September 21, 2000, lot 322
Cleveland Museum of Art,
Realm of the Immortals: Daoism in the Arts of China, February 10 - April 10, 1988, no. 17
This magnificent vase is finely painted with a detailed scene of the Queen Mother of the West, Xiwangmu, arriving to observe the preparations for her Peach Banquet. She has just alighted from her phoenix, which brought her from her home in the Kunlun Mountains, and she stands poised, ready to step down from the clouds, surrounded by a small entourage. She wears her characteristic phoenix headdress and a robe decorated with shou characters. Within the landscape below, her maids gather together peaches of immortality for the Queen Mother’s inspection. A group of immortal maids hasten forward with a cart pulled by a deer, bearing a giant peach surrounded by flowers, while another group arrives in a raft, filled with large peaches and jars of wine. Along the banks of the river lingzhi grows in relative abundance, while deer cross a bridge and cranes look on, surrounded by pine, cypress and chrysanthemums.
Xiwangmu is the earliest recorded goddess in the Chinese pantheon. The first mention of her appears in Shang dynasty oracle bone inscriptions dating to the fifteenth century BC, that record sacrifices to Dongmu, Eastern Mother, and Ximu, Western Mother. It is unclear if this Ximu is the same Queen Mother of the West, but certainly by the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), Xiwangmu had emerged as a goddess worshipped not only by the Han imperial family and the upper classes, but also by the common people.
In the mythological classic Shanhai Jing, 'Classic of Mountains and Seas', compiled between the Early Warring States period and the Early Han dynasty (475 BC- 9 AD) Xiwangmu is described as a ferocious half-human, half-animal, with the teeth of a tiger and the tail of a leopard, who sends pestilence down upon the world. During the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589 AD) the religious Daoists with their belief in opposing and complimentary forces, adopted her as the counterpoint to Dongwanggong (The King Father of the East). By this time she had shed her animal form, become the embodiment of femininity, the personification of the yin principle, and as a mother goddess, she was responsible for allocating the lifespans of humans. As a result, she became associated with dispensing longevity, and this association with longevity is clearly visible in the decoration of the
The peaches, which are a central motif, are believed to bestow immortality on those who eat them. They come from Xiwangmu’s orchard of three thousand six hundred trees. According to legend, each one of these trees was planted by Xiwangmu’s own hand. The fruit on the trees ripen once every three thousand, six thousand and nine thousand years. Consuming a three thousand year peach will make you an immortal. Eating a six thousand year peach will give you everlasting life, and having a nine thousand year peach will give you a life span equal to that of heaven and earth. On the rare occasion of the peaches ripening, the Queen Mother invites all the immortals to a Peach Banquet, the Pantaohui, so that they can feast
on the peaches and assure their immortality.
The cranes and deer symbolize immortality because cranes were believed to live till one hundred years of age, and deer were the companions of Shoulao, the god of immortality. In addition, the word for deer, lu, is a homophone for emoluments, while the name for cypress, bai, is a pun for the world hundred. The presence of the deer and cypress therefore form a rebus for ‘heaven bestows one hundred emoluments’. The pine tree is another longevity symbol because it too lives a long
time and has an ancient gnarly appearance.
Lingzhi is a fungus which has been used for medicinal purposes in traditional Chinese medicine for more than two thousand years. In ancient times it was believed that thelingzhi could revive the dead and bestow immortality. For the Peach Banquet, the immortal Magu was believed to make a wine from lingzhi and present it to the Queen Mother. The motif of Magu presenting wine was also a popular one, primarily seen in embroidered panels used
as birthday decorations.
Large vases such as this one, filled with immortality motifs, would also have been appropriate as gifts and for display at birthday celebrations. This idea is reinforced by the decoration around the lower register of the neck which has chimes suspended from coins. In ancient Chinese coins, the hole in the middle was referred to as the ‘eye’, and the word for chime is a homophone for celebration, qing. The coins and chimes therefore form the rebus ‘celebrations right before your eyes’.
Many smaller vases decorated with images of Xiwangmu exist, but such large and finely painted examples are relatively rare. A large vase of the same size, also decorated with a figure of Xiwangmu is in the collection
of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession Number 14.40.331.
Text and images on this page appear courtesy of
Sotheby's New York and are excerpted from:
Sotheby's New York. Embracing Classic Chinese Culture:
Kangxi Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection.
March 14, 2014, p. 70. [exhibition catalog].