Antique Taoist Priest on a Horse, China
This fine carving is likely a Taoist priest dressed in official garments astride a lively horse that was originally place on a home or community clan shrine to protect devotees. In contrast to the erect and calm priest with expressive facial features, the ornately attired horse is active as it turns his head, opens his mouth, and widens his nostrils. The priest’s powers as a guardian figure are symbolized in his hat with a mythical taotie that wards off evil and warns against gluttony and his raised hand in prana mudra that activates vital energy flow to avert evil and bring good fortune.
This fine piece was probably placed in a clan or home altar with other religious images, ancestor figures or folk heroes reflecting the Chinese syncretic tradition of adhered to multiple spiritual and belief systems. Although it is difficult to identify specific figures this image is likely a Taoist Priest in officials attire astride a lively horse. Taoist-Priests and masters, viewed as models of morality protecting devotees by casting out demonic or malevolent spirits, were often depicted on horses, which may reflect the belief that the Way of the Tao stresses harmony and oneness with nature and the elegance of nature personified by horses. The priest’s pendulous ears reflect his wisdom and enlightenment. He wears a two-part robe crossed at the neck and held at the waist by a disk and a winged cap with lateral extensions with a barely discernible carving of a taotie, one of the ancient mythical animals sometimes depicted on hats to warn against greed and gluttony and to protect against bad spirits. He raises his hand with two fingers up in the Taoist Sword Gesture (prana mudra) that Stephen Little (p. 192) calls “a beneficial ritual gesture, ” symbolizing the energetic link of heaven and earth, an idea consistent with the Taoist belief of uniting natural energies. Also known as the Sword Gesture it is used to cast spells, offer blessings, and sanctify and empower Taoist talismans. Some of the robe’s original lacquer with red and black pigment has flaked or naturally darkened from incense and candle smoke. There are some losses to the base but it is in very good condition for its age and use. The back cavity indicates it was consecrated.
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Terese Tse Bartholomew, Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, San Francisco, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 2006.
Stephen Little, Taoism and the Arts of China, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000.
Po Sung-Nien and David Johnson, Domesticated Deities and Auspicious Emblems: The Iconography of Everyday Life in Village China, Chinese Popular Culture Project, 1992.
Dr. Thomas Ritter, he Tao of Horsemanship – Chapter One.
Patricia Bjaaland Welch, Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Iconography, North Clarendon, Vt., Tuttle Publishing, 2008.
|Dimensions||16 × 12 × 9 in|
|Place of Origin||
Antique, Qing Dynasty
|Materials and Technique||
Wood, polychrome, lacquer
Ht: 13" W: 4" D: 7"
Ht: 53.34cm W: 10.16cm D: 17.78cm
2 lbs 2oz
Very good, patina and wear consistent with age and use