Like the elephant, the lion evoked images of India and of Buddhism, its roar representative of a metaphor of the voice of the Buddha propagating the Dharma. The image of Manjusri is frequently presented in Tang art as mounted on a lion. Fundamentally, however, the lion was revered at the Tang court for the powerful protective force it commanded, its role as a guardian figure and emblem of power.
Large stone lions are found at the imperial Tang tombs, where they were placed in pairs as ferocious guardians. See for example a stone lion, from the Shaanxi Provincial Museum, illustrated in Ann Paludan, The Chinese Spirit Road, New Haven and London, 1991, pls 37-38. In contrast to earlier more stylised representation of animal form in the Han dynasty and Six Dynasties period, in these monumental figures the lion is powerful carved with full naturalistic attention to its muscular body and ferocious expression, epitomising the vitality of the Tang sculptural tradition.
The present pair of lions, though smaller than those created with the function of guarding the spirit road, are also imbued with this powerful yet subtle modelling that represents the height of early Tang period sculptural tradition. For other smaller Tang sculptures of lions, compare an individual lion from the collection of Alice Boney, included in the exhibition The Arts of the T’ang Dynasty. A Loan Exhibition Organised by the Los Angeles County Museum from Collections in America, The Orient and Europe, Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles, 1957, cat. no. 43. Compare also two larger individual lion stone sculptures depicted seated in the more commonly found four-square posture, the first from the collections of George Eumorfopoulos and Montague Meyer, exhibited in Paris at the Orangerie Des Tuilleries, no. D672, and sold in our New York rooms, 4th December 1985, lot 62, the second from the collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, sold at Christie’s New York, 17th March 2015, lot 16.
These other examples all depict the lion modelled seated four-square on its hind legs with both forelegs straight and head facing forward. The posture on the current pair, however, is extremely rare, depicting one of the lions inclined with its hind leg raised to scratch its mane, the other depicted biting its foreleg. This rare posture appears to be unique in stone, but can be found in the finest quality sancai pottery figures of lions of the period. Examples include a Tang sancai figure of a lion in the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, illustrated by Masahiko Sato and Gakuji Hasebe, eds, Sekai Toji Zenshu/Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 11, Tokyo, 1976, p. 87, no. 67, and an example sold in our London rooms, 2nd/3rd December 1974, lot 69.
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