The Royal Taste: The Art of Princely Courts in Fifteenth-Century China
The exhibition features particularly valuable objects found in the tombs of imperial princes of the Ming dynasty in the Hubei Province in southwestern China and today kept in the Hubei Provincial Museum, the Qichun County Musem, the Hubei Museum of Ming Dynasty and the Udan Museum.
The Ming dynasty ruled China in 1398-1644. Having overthrown the preceding Mongol Yuang dynasty Ming emperors created new ample and prosperous empire much more advanced in its cultural and technical development than the European states of that period. The Ming Empire reached its heights in the fifteenth century. Socio-economical growth was accompanied by new flowering of fine arts, including the decorative applied arts intended to satisfy the refined tastes of imperial court. The shining jewelry, religious objects, exquisite tableware and personal care items made of precious metals introduce visitors to the daily life of the Ming princes, reveals their aesthetic preferences and mental world.
The exhibition consists of three sections. The first one “The Ming Imperial Family and Their Descendants” shows the daily life of imperial princes in the Hubei Province. This section presents the objects of everyday use and funerary items from the princely tombs found in this area. The value of these findings indicates the importance of the Hubei Province in structure of new empire established by Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of Ming dynasty (ruled in 1366-1398). With support of military force he united the territories of China. To prevent the restoration of preceding rule Zhu Yuanzhang extensively applied the system of giving fiefs to imperial princes (zhuhou) in different areas for “defense of borders and interior support”, called the “fence of vassals to rule the Celestial Empire”.
In this section several items are particularly interesting. The first one is the imperial certificate for the marriage of woman from the Wei lineage with the Prince Liangzhuan, the younger brother of the Emperor Xuande (personal name Zhu Zhanji, ruled in 1424-1435) inscribed on the gilt silver plates and found in the prince tomb. It’s the rare if not the only one surviving document of this kind. These findings are exceptionally rare and have invaluable historical importance. The second item is the set of ritual vessels of lead and tin alloy also found in the Prince Liangzhuan tomb. The choice of material and simple design of these objects refllect the requirements of modesty and economy established by the imperial court in accordance with the principles of Confucian ethics. However, sets of gold, silver and richly painted porcelain tableware alongside gold funerary coins were found in the same tomb. Also the lacquered iron helmet belonged to the Prince Liangzhuan with a character yong - “valor” was excavated in his tomb.
The second section “Shining of Gold and Beauty of Jade” presents to visitors ornaments worn by imperial princes and their consorts as material signs of their high social status. The choice of materials, design and shape reflected the position of their owner in imperial family. Ornaments were explicit demonstration of noble origin of the emperor’s relatives. Elaborate headdresses and gold, jade and gemstones ornaments exhibited in this section stressed the high status and wealth of the Ming Imperial House.
Aesthetic vision and tastes of imperial family as well as etiquette regulations created by Confucian ethic concepts find their material expression in shining of gold and brilliance of precious stones. The true masterpiece that can’t remain unnoticed is the set of gold hair ornaments designed as plum flowers, peonies, fantastic birds and clouds belonged to the Lady Wei, the consort of the Prince Liangzhuan.
The third section “Faith and Religion” is dedicated to two main religions popular at the Ming imperial court: Buddhism and Taoism. It’s necessary to note particular popularity of Vajrayana Buddhism among the members of the Imperial family in that time. The influence of Vajrayana tradition on the Ming dynasty also reflects in the cult objects presented on the exhibition: images of deities and bodhisattvas made in Tibetan and Indian styles, the main Buddhist symbols and mantras.