the imposing pair modelled as male and female beasts, each chisled from single blocks of white marble, seated on its haunches with its jaws open snarling, exposing a full mouth of teeth and a broad curled tongue, the bulging eyes peering from below bushy eyebrows, with a mane of tight curly tufts above a collar suspending a single bell clutched in the mouth of a lion-head mask, further flanked by tassles, tied around the neck with ribbon ends trailing down the back side, its long bushy tail swept to the side, the female playfully pressing her cub under her left paw, the male clutching a beribboned brocade ball beneath his powerful right paw, both supported on an integral rectangular base with a brocade ground
This magnificent pair of marble seated beasts belongs to a special group of statuary that was made as door guardians, placed in front of a main gate or entrance. The use of animals as guardians arose from the cosmic significance of the spirit road. Guards were essential in providing protection in the spiritual as well as the physical world and for that task animals became a natural choice. Hence, large carved stone lions were made for lining the spirit road leading to important tombs and, during the Ming dynasty, were one of six pairs of animals that included elephants, horses, qilin, xiezhai and camels. The fabulous lion stood for strength and security and in the context of the spirit road symblized the power of the empire. A large Ming dynasty lion figure in situ at Zuling, Lake Hongze Xuyi county, Jiangsu province, is illustrated in Ann Paludan, Chinese Sculpture. A Great Tradition, Chicago, 2006, p. 433, fig. 284. Paludan, ibid., p. 432, notes that imperial power to draw on heavenly forces is shown in the lions that stood for strength and security. Their strength is depicted through their ferocious expression and the decorated collar signifies their allegiance to their owner. As door guardians, see a pair of stone lions in situ positioned on the two sides of the entrance to the Gaomin Temple in Yangzhou published in Qingdai gongting shenghuo, Beijing, 1985, pl. 132.
The present pair of lions is especially noteworthy for its modelling with the female holding her cub under her paw and the male clutching a brocade ball. Stone lion sculptures of this type are rarely depicted in this somewhat playful fashion.
Marble lion figures of the Ming dynasty are rare with later examples, attributed to the Qing period, more commonly found; such as the pair of slightly smaller marble lions on a pedestal base, from the collection of John Wannamaker, where the figures were located on the grounds of the Wannamaker home in Lindenhurst, Chelten Hills, Philadelphia, sold in our New York rooms, 23rd March 1997, lot 178. Compare another pair of lion figures in the Royal Ontario Museum, published in Homage to Heaven, Homage to Earth, Chinese Treasures of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 1992, pl. 114.
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