The Lioness
Central Asia
With an imperial inscription by the Chenghua Emperor on silk, which dates the work to the first of the lunar sixth month in the guimao (corresponding to the date of 5 July 1483), and one imperial seal that reads 'Treasures from Vast Territories' (guangyun zhibao 廣運之寶)
Ink and pigment on paper
242 x 287 cm (95 ¼ x 113 in)

A spectacular, near-life-size painting on paper, The Lioness depicts two emissaries accompanying a female lion that is being offered as tribute to the Chinese court. The creature’s name, ‘Hussayni’, which means ‘Beauty’, is emblazoned in gold characters in the centre of the painting. The leading emissary is identified by an inscription in gold as Ambassador Paluwan (Paliuwan 帕六灣); the secondary figure is identified as the hoja Mahmad (Maheima 馬黑麻), who is likely the lion’s keeper. Along the top of the painting is a prose-style poem titled, ‘The Imperial Rhapsody on Lions’ (Yuzhi shizi fu 御制狮子赋). Written by the Chenghua 成化 Emperor (r. 1464–87), 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), which corresponds to the date of 5 July 1483. Written on silk, the inscription also features a large imperial seal that reads: ‘Treasures from Vast Territories’ (guangyun zhi bao 廣運之寶).

This exceptional painting boasts an illustrious provenance: its presence in Europe can be traced back to a 1922 auction held by André Portier of items seized from German merchant and art dealer Edgar Worch during the First World War. After which it was held in two highly established collections, the Gulbenkian, and later, the Essayan, by descent. In recent years, it was held in a private collection in London.

The extraordinary detail and nuanced realism of the work strongly suggest that it was painted from life. Despite its huge scale (242 x 287 cm), the work was masterfully executed: it displays much of the restrained refinement of a miniature, but is complemented by bold, quickly drawn lines of great fluidity and immediacy. Understated layers of subtle colour and thin coats of pigment animate the creature’s plush fur, while the two accompanying emissaries are distinctly different in appearance and dress. The leading figure, Ambassador Paluwan, has a square face with a broad nose and thick eyebrows; his beard is delicately painted with layers of wash and accented with finely drawn brushstrokes. He wears a white turban and a long blue robe, against which the scarlet tassels of the animal’s halter stand out. The second figure, the hoja Mahmad – the lion’s keeper – has a thinner face with a pronounced nose; he wears a pale-coloured gown with a white turban and sash. The use of lighter pigments to define his facial features is characteristic of the period’s portraiture.

Exquisitely painted trees, alive with brilliantly observed birds, form the background of the work and also partially frame the scene. Both trees and birds are highly symbolic, and were incorporated more for their special 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, both of which are also auspicious symbols. This favourable setting was likely chosen to equate the tribute with good omens and to convince the emperor to receive the gift.

This particular offering of a lion as tribute to the court can be traced to a specific episode referenced in Ming dynasty literature. Descriptions of the event can be found in The History of the Ming Dynasty (Mingshi 明史, completed in 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 in 1723), as well as in the inscription that runs along the top of the painting. According to these texts, an embassy consisting of several individuals, including the envoy Paluwan1 – following the tradition of many similar embassies from the Muslim world to China – carried gifts for the Chinese emperor from the Emir of Samarkand and Isfahan, Sultan Ahmad. The tribute included two rare white lions (though only one is depicted in this painting). Although lions had been presented as tribute in the early decades of the Ming dynasty, this practice was later abandoned, and so the animals gifted by Sultan Ahmad were likely the first such tribute under the Chenghua reign. By this point, however, lions had become a symbol for costly tribute gifts, according to the director of the Bureau of Operations, one of the top bureaus of the Ministry of War. He declared the animals ‘useless creatures’ because they could neither be sacrificed nor used to pull carriages. As a result, the embassy was not allowed to proceed across the border into China. The histories recount that the emperor disagreed with his advisors, thus ordering that an imperial commissioner be sent to welcome the embassy and escort the representatives, along with the lions, to the court.

The interim, between the embassy being barred entry and the commissioner retrieving the envoys and tribute, is not described in the histories. It is thus likely that the painting was commissioned during this period by the embassy stuck at the border, in hopes that the work could be sent onwards to convince the emperor to receive them at the court. In The Informative Records on Countries Far Away (Shuyu zhou zi lu 殊域周咨錄by Yan Congjian 嚴從簡, completed in 1574), the date of the embassy is given as 1481; however, The History of the Ming Dynasty summarises the event under the year 1483, which is supported by the dating of the imperial inscription. It is possible that the embassy arrived at the border in 1481 and had to wait several months before being allowed to proceed to Beijing, leaving ample time for the painting to be commissioned and completed. The emperor ultimately received the work, a fact documented in the semi-poetic inscription, or fu, that runs along the top of the painting, which was composed by the monarch himself.

Though the emperor likely came up with the wording of the fu, the calligraphic style of the inscription implies that a skilled drafter executed it. The Chenghua Emperor is said to have composed a collection of poems that were compiled in 1478. This collection has since disappeared, meaning that this inscription is highly significant, as it may be the only surviving example of his poetry. The characters of the inscription are upright and uniform – this calligraphic style exemplifies the standardised Imperial Secretariat style that developed during the Yongle period (1403–24) and later became the popular style for drafters of court documents. In contrast, the Chenghua Emperor’s own calligraphy is freer flowing and has greater movement; examples can be seen on Good Omens on Lunar New Year’s Day (Suizhao jia zhao tu 歲朝佳兆圖), a painting by the emperor in the Palace Museum collection in Beijing.2 The imperial seal, guangyun zhi bao, is commonly associated with imperial decrees, and was used by the Xuande Emperor (r. 1426–35) and his successors. Evidence that the Chenghua Emperor used the seal can be seen on the same Palace Museum painting. In The Lioness, however, the seal was never actually impressed, and on close inspection, it is clear that the design was outlined and painted in. However, although the emperor did not likely pen the inscription himself, the calligraphic style and use of the seal both support the 1483 dating of the work.