Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)
This intricately decorated ritual wine vessel, or guang, was made during the Shang dynasty, when the piece-mold technology to create objects in bronze had evolved to a level of sophistication unparalleled among the world’s ancient civilizations. The scale of ancient China’s bronze industry—implied by the number of vessels that survive and the labor-intensive processes, from mining to casting, required to produce works with this alloy of copper, tin, and lead—suggests a state with a highly developed social organization and control over complex resources.
The guang’s removable lid allows it to be easily filled with wine, and animal motifs cast in relief adorn its surface. The meaning, if any, of this lively decoration is unknown, but the intricate design joining fifteen imaginary, powerful-looking beasts has a supernatural quality, suggesting a mystical world beyond our own. Because such vessels were made for specific celebrants, who employed them in rituals honoring their ancestors, they were often buried with their owners. It was during the Shang dynasty that writing developed in China; a character cast inside the lid is probably the owner’s clan sign, linking this guang with several other vessels in museums around the world. This vessel likely came from the last capital of the Shang, Anyang, in Henan province, because it is stylistically similar to other works excavated in this area.
My ancestors, were they not men? How can they continue to see me suffer? —Chinese folk song, about 1000 BCE
[King]*.[Fritz Low-Beer]. Eli Lilly (for $8,500. from Feb. 1949 list by W. Peat) *Fitz's 5/15/1950 letter to W. Peat; given to the John Herron Art Institute, now the Indianapolis Museum of Art, in 1960.
The Aesthetic of Antiquity
Mellon Curator James Watt discusses not only the complexity of design but also the animal forms on the bronze Chinese //ritual wine server//, or guang, from the Eli Lilly Collection.