This large rectangular textile with Chinese motifs and embroidery techniques is part of an important but little understood group of related works made in China for export.¹ Described by various scholars as hangings, covers, or coverlets, all the textiles in the group share a common layout with a central roundel in a rectangular field, surrounded by multiple borders. This type of composition is often associated with the influence of Portuguese and Spanish models, although there are some earlier Asian examples that employ this format as well.²
Wholly Asian in subject and style, however, are the motifs. The pair of phoenixes at the center of the textile encircle a large peony. Similar dynamically posed birds are also seen in an architectural stone relief excavated from the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) capital and now in the National Museum of China, Beijing, as well as in a corresponding textile in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum,³ and peonies often figure in Ming rank badges, in which a pair of birds encircle a flower. Within the rectangular field are flowers and four more birds -- two golden pheasants and two peacocks, which were used as insignia for the second and third civil ranks in both Ming and Qing China.
The multiple borders surrounding the central field include a wide border embroidered with various animals—rare creatures such as a tiger and elephant in addition to the familiar horse, deer, and goat, all of which are depicted side by side with such distinctively mythical Chinese beasts as a blue qilin and a white, singlehorned xiezhi. A composite animal with hooves and usually a single horn, the qilin is mentioned in poetry as early as the Han dynasty (206 b.c.–a.d. 220),⁴ its appearance was sometimes said to signal the birth of a sage, and it was used as a rank insignia for nobles. The xiezhi also appears in Han dynasty texts; known for its ability to distinguish virtue from evil, it used its sharp teeth and single horn to bite and gore wrongdoers, and it was the insignia for the censorate, which included judges. Here, both animals have flames shooting off their bodies, indicating their supernatural powers.
Embroideries of this type were made for export, and a number have been preserved in Japan and Europe in historical contexts. The oldest documented example is an altar cloth in Saikyo￣ ji, a temple in Kyoto; it was donated in 1616.⁵ Another example, now in the Museo Diocesano, Chiavari, Italy, was donated to a church in Chiavari in 1651 and used as a baldachin, or canopy, for the clergy.⁶ Others are preserved in museum collections.⁷
Chinese textiles and other goods came to the Americas via the Manila galleons’ annual trips between Acapulco (and Callao, the port city of Lima) and the Philippines. While to date no preserved embroideries from this group have been found in Mexico or Peru, their influence was present there by the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century,⁸ as evident in the similar layout and motifs of a Peruvian tapestry in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (fig. 33).⁹
[Melinda Watt, adapted from Interwoven Globe, The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800/ edited by Amelia Peck; New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: distributed by Yale University Press, 2013]
1. For a survey of textiles in the tradition of this piece, see Yoshida, "Saikyo￣ ji ya Honkokuji ni denrai suru kaki cho￣ju￣ mon’yo￣ shishu￣," pp. 101—19.
2. Chinese textiles that appear to have been made for the domestic market sometimes include central roundels with a pair of birds or animals and a four-directional layout. See, for example, the tapestry-woven silk textile, likely used as a kang cover, in the Metropolitan’s collection, acc. no. 69.246.
3. Metropolitan Museum, acc. no. 1988.82.
4. Rawson, Chinese Ornament, p. 108.
5. See Yoshida, "Saikyo￣ji ya Honkokuji ni denrai suru kaki cho￣ju￣ mon’yo￣ shishu￣ ," p. 103.
6. Failla, "Cielo de baldacchino processionale," p. 277, no. 156.
7. For a piece in Seville, see Yoshida, "Saikyo￣ji ya Honkokuji ni denrai suru kaki cho￣ju￣ mon’yo￣ shishu￣ ," p. 109; for related pieces in New York, see Metropolitan Museum, acc. nos. 29.100.152—157 and 29.100.544.
8. Elena Phipps in Phipps et al., Colonial Andes, p. 250, no. 75.
9. Two other Peruvian tapestries that include East Asian animals are in the Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. For both, see Elena Phipps in Phipps et al., Colonial Andes, pp. 250–54, nos. 75–76.