Weekly Highlight: Rare Ming Dynasty Tiles

Rare Ming Dynasty Tiles


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This technique is particularly associated with the Tang Dynasty, and is therefore often referred to as Tang Sancai (唐三彩) in Chinese. Sancai ceramics are made from white clay and finished in combinations of different glazes: copper glaze, which turns green, iron glaze, which turns amber, and sometimes manganese or cobalt glaze, which turns blue. The colors flow and meld into one another to create beautiful scenes, and the technique was often used to create ceramic sculptures in the form of horses in addition to the more traditional vessels and plates.

This sancai technique became very popular in China and abroad, and its influence was felt as far away as Italy thanks to trading along the Silk Road. With the rise of trade during the Ming Dynasty (14th-17th century) came the rise of the commercial class, and sancai was coopted by a new class of artisans that evolved to serve the needs of the growing urban populations. Where the arts had been dominated by royal patronage in the Tang and Song Dynasties, later artisans worked to please the thriving commercial class.

This pair of glazed terracotta tiles would have been centerpieces in the decorative scheme of a Ming Dynasty temple or garden. Like many sancai wares, they are the result of a combination of molds and hand-carving. The surface has been brilliantly colored in rich green and yellow ochre hues, depicting an auspicious creature with the long beak and wings of a bird, the lithe neck and body of a dragon, and the scaled tail of a fish. This creature is set against a background of lotus leaves and flowers, as if we have come upon it in its natural habitat. With its wings open in warning, its sharp fangs and beady eyes poised toward the viewer, this creature was clearly meant to frighten away any potential evildoers, be they human or otherworldly. Thus did these pieces protect the building they once adorned, as part of a larger frieze of glazed tiles that would have decorated the interior or exterior of a temple, palace, or garden structure. We may imagine an entire structure covered in such tiles, an ostentatious display of urban wealth and class that also looks back to an idealized rural life.

Rare Ming Dynasty Tiles
Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
Two Green, Amber, and Cream-glazed Tile