Possibly Anyang, Henan Province, China
Bronze; W. 13 in. (33 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1943 (43.25.4)
Loosely based on the image of a bird, as can be seen from the hooked beak and glaring eyes at its front, this rare example of a ritual vessel known as a guang was used to pour wine or other potent beverages in ceremonies linking the rulers of the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600 1050 B.C.) with their ancestors and supernatural forces. The metamorphic imagery that defines this vessel typifies bronzes cast at the late Shang (ca. 13001050 B.C.) capital of Anyang, Henan Province, in north central China: the coiled serpents emerging from the wings are accompanied by roaring tiger-dragons prowling along the sides; the horned bird that serves as a handle miraculously becomes a short-tailed dragon-serpent. All of these details, carefully cast in high relief, are set against a low-relief background of linked spirals known as thundercloud motifs (leiwen). This container was cast using several ceramic piece molds, a method that had no parallel in the ancient world. In this technique, ceramic molds carved with complicated multilayered designs were assembled around an interior clay core. Molten bronze was then poured into the space left between the mold and the core. After the bronze had cooled and hardened, the ceramic molds were broken to reveal the vessels. Time and precision were required to make bronze vessels in this fashion, and the control of the raw materials, labor, and technology needed to make such objects was one of the prerogatives of the ruling elite during the Shang dynasty.