December 20, 2011

At the Met: Ancient Chinese Jades

Ritual Object (Bi); Neolithic period, late 3rd - 2nd millenium B.C.; jade (nephrite)

Ritual Object (Bi); Neolithic period, ca. 3200 - 2000 B.C.; jade (nephrite)

There is a small case just at the entrance to the Chinese galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I always stop and visit when I am in that part of the museum. It contains a group of ancient objects that are simple and perfect in form, so invite contemplative looking. Theirs is a pure beauty.

Ritual Object (Bi); Neolithic period, late 3rd - 2nd millenium B.C.; jade (nephrite)

From the wall label I learned that jade was in use as early as the 5th millenium B.C. These small pieces (the works above are around 5 or 6 inches across) were, of course, objects for those high in social status, and used as ornaments, or for ritual purposes: offerings, gifts, tomb objects for the afterlife. Jade was more than a lovely stone, it had a cultural meaning. Confucius wrote:
The wise have likened jade to virtue. For them, its polish and brilliancy represent the whole of purity; its perfect compactness and extreme hardness represent the sureness of intelligence; its angles, which do not cut, although they seem sharp, represent justice...Its color represents loyalty; its interior flaws, always showing themselves through the transparency, call to mind sincerity; its iridescent brightness represents heaven; its admirable substance, born of mountain and of water, represents the earth.

Perforated Ax; Neolithic period, 3200 - 2000 B.C.; stone.

Although this piece is not of jade, it has the same sense of a form slowly developed until it is perfect; each line, straight or curved, is balanced and sure.

Ceremonial Blade; Neolithic period, ca. 1600 - 1046 B.C.; jade (nephrite).
Ceremonial Dagger-Ax (Ge); Shang dynasty, ca. 1600 - 1046 B.C.; jade (nephrite)

Ceremonial Blade; Neolithic period, ca. 1600 - 1046 B.C.; jade (nephrite).

Ceremonial Dagger-Ax; Shang Dynasty, ca. 1600 - 1046 B.C.; jade (nephrite)

The shape of each of these blades is so refined and beautiful. According to the museum's wall label, Chinese jades were made of nephrite, a mineral composed of oxides of calcium, magnesium, and silicon. This mineral was extremely hard and could only be shaped by grinding with abrasives such as quartz sand. Because of this, making a jade object was a very laborious and time consuming practice. I like to think of the ancient makers working with slow and close attention to every aspect of surface and form.

Ornament with Mask; Neolithic period, 3200 - 2000 B.C.; jade (nephrite)

This small, three inch, jade is the only one with an image, a low relief of a charmingly stylized face; two upward tilting eyes are connected by a bridge of nose, keeping them anchored to each other, and a small, slightly smiling mouth is an elongated oval below. All is contained within an elegant curved dome. Each of these ancient works speaks quietly, serenely, of time and patience and grace.

1 comment:

  1. Gorgeous Photos, Altoon. So much to learn about the object or shape
    in space.