Unknown
Silver bowl

This elegant Silver bowl is engraved on its exterior with birds, undulating palmette and peony scrolls against a granular background pattern. The graceful birds suspended in mid air are framed by the floral scrolls and echo their rhythmic movements. The base is engraved with a luxuriant rosette of floral petals.

The decoration shows influences from Near Eastern Sassanian art (AD 224–628) and Indian art of the Gupta period (AD 320–600). The naturalistic floral scrolls and birds are reminiscent of Indian wall paintings of Ajanta (5th–6th century AD). Even before the Tang dynasty (AD 618–906), palmette scrolls appeared in Buddhist art of sixth-century China, following the introduction of Buddhism from India via Central Asia in the first century. The foreign motifs were transformed into a Chinese style of decoration which is organic, animated and fluent in movement. Contacts with the Sassanian Empire of Persia resulted in the introduction of gold and silver ware to Tang dynasty China. When the Arabs invaded Persia in the seventh century, Sassanian kings fled and sought refuge in the Tang capital of Changan in north-western China.

Tang China established herself as the largest and most dominant power in Asia. Her contacts stretched westward across the continent to the Mediterranean and reached eastward to Korea and Japan. Changan became an international and cosmopolitan city which attracted foreign emissaries, Buddhist monks, merchants and skilled craftsmen including Persian goldsmiths and silversmiths. The Tang dynasty thus witnessed the fluorescence of an opulent and dynamic art and culture.

In ancient China from the sixteenth century to the third century BC, bronze dominated the artistic production of metal. Objects worked principally in gold and silver from this early period are rare because deposits of precious metal ore are not abundant in China and supply came from the outlying provinces and foreign territories. Imported from beyond China’s borders, gold and silver were luxury metals and it was not until the great prosperity of the Tang dynasty that objects such as this Silver bowl were more commonly made.

Recent archaeological excavations in China in the 1950s and 1970s have unearthed a large number of gold and silver vessels. Another major source of Tang gold and silver is housed in the repository of the Shosoin of the Todaiji, a Buddhist temple, in Nara, Japan. These and other Tang treasures in the Shosoin were dedicated in AD 756 by Empress Komyo to the Great Buddha of the Todaiji in honour of her deceased husband, Emperor Shomu. The present Tang Silver bowl is the first of its kind to enter the Asian Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. To the writer’s knowledge, these bowls are rarely found in Australian collections.

Mae Anna Pang, Senior Curator, Asian Art, NGV (in 2010)