Given that this year marks two major exhibitions on the Ming Dynasty at national museums, Ming: the Golden Empire currently on show at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, and Ming: 50 Years that Changed China to open at the British Museum this September, we felt it a great opportunity to highlight one of the stunning Ming Dynasty works of art Rossi & Rossi have to offer.
1483 (Chenghua Period, Ming Dynasty)
Framed ink and colour on paper
242 x 287 cm (95 ¼ x 113 in)
The Lioness is perhaps one of the most important and most interesting paintings from the period of the Chenghua Emperor. Near Life-size, the painting depicts two emissaries accompanying a lioness that is being offered to the Chinese court as tribute. The accompanying inscription, which runs along the top of the painting, is a prose-poem entitled, 'The Imperial Rhapsody on Lions' (Yuzhi shizi fu 御制狮子赋). Purported to have been written by the Chenghua 成化 emperor (r. 1464–1487), it is dated to the first of the lunar sixth month in the guimao 癸卯 year of the Chenghua Period, Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)—corresponding to the date of 5 July 1483—and features a large seal reading, ‘Treasures from Vast Territories’ (Guangyun zhibao 廣運之寶).
This offering of a lion as tribute to the court can be traced to a specific event referenced in the literature of the Ming Dynasty. Descriptions of this event can be found in the History of the Ming Dynasty (Mingshi 明史, completed 1739), the Veritable Records of the Ming Dynasty (Ming shilu 明實錄, compiled during the Ming Dynasty) and the Draft History of the Ming Dynasty (Mingshi gao 明史稿 by Wang Hongxu 王鴻緒, completed 1723) as well as in the inscription that runs above the painting. According to these texts, in 1483 the emir of Samarkand and Isfahan, Sultan Ahmad, offered tribute of lions to the Ming Dynasty court. (While the texts explicitly describe the offering of a pair of lions, only a single lioness is depicted in this painting.) According to the History of the Ming Dynasty, which relates the story, when the emissaries requested a minister to meet them and accept the lions as tribute, advisors to the emperor argued against accepting the gift, as the animals were seen as ‘useless creatures’ that could neither be sacrificed nor used to pull carriages. Emperor Xianzong 憲宗, however, decided to accept the tribute; the painting and the inscription attempt to justify this action by extolling the lioness as a fierce creature that should be read as a symbol of loyalty and regarded as auspicious sign.
Exquisitely painted trees, alive with brilliantly observed birds, form the background and also partially frame the scene. Both trees and birds are highly symbolic, and have been incorporated more for their associations than to provide a realistic setting. The huai 槐, or locust tree, is commonly found in palace gardens, and is perhaps suggestive of the location of the offering. In poetic contrast, behind the locust tree is a peach tree—its ripe, subtly shaded fruit symbolic of prosperity and longevity. The songbirds that cluster in the branches include a pair of orioles and a pair of magpies, which are both also auspicious symbols. This favourable setting was probably chosen to equate the tribute with good omens.
Dubridge translation (1997), P.Hobson text (1989), Whitefield (SOAS, 2003),
Watson, William. "Chinese Style in the Paintings of the Istanbul Albums", Islamic Art I (1981), pg.76, n12.
For more information, including provenance and images, please contact the gallery.