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Pair of Tomb Guardians

Pair of tomb guardians

Pair of tomb guardians China Tang dynasty (618–906) Glazed earthenware The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S155+.

Pair of tomb guardians

Pair of tomb guardians. China; Tang dynasty (618–906). Glazed earthenware. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S156+.

Pair of tomb guardians
Pair of tomb guardians

What are these objects?
These two ferocious looking figures were created for a tomb to stand guard near the entrance passageways leading into the tomb chambers. They are called Heavenly Kings (tianwang) and are made of earthenware decorated with sancai glazes. Each figure stands with one foot on a demon dwarf figure. The guardians are protected with helmets, breastplates, shin guards, and boots. 

The precise art historical and functional origins of Heavenly King figures such as these are unclear. The figures appear to have originated with Indian Buddhist traditions, where four guardians protected the four cardinal directions at the entrance gates to temple compounds. However, in a secular Chinese tomb setting, the figures usually appear only in pairs, rather than in sets of four. Their appearance in Chinese tombs of the sixth and seventh centuries may represent a blending of several traditions that also included esoteric forms of Buddhism. Similar figures appear on a monumental scale among the central group of carved stone statues in the Buddhist cave shrine at Longmen. It is possible that the creation of Heavenly King guardian figures for important tombs was also inspired by this large-scale, royally commissioned cave shrine.

How were they made?
The pair was made from molded sections joined together with added sculpted sections, and then decorated with sancai (three-color) lead glazes. With these figures, areas of skin were left unglazed and then painted with pigments directly on the ceramic after firing. Each figure stands with its weight on one foot, causing the body to bend slightly. The two figures mirror each other’s position, supporting the notion that they were created as a pair.

Large ceramic figures made for tombs in the Tang dynasty were usually displayed on carts outside the entrance to the tomb where funeral rituals took place, and then processed into the tomb where they were placed in their final positions. Typically such figures formed part of an assemblage that would have included mythical beasts, as well as ceramic figures in the form of scholar-officials. Musicians, entertainers, soldiers on horseback, and other animals also formed part of the ceramic entourage.