An Important Chinese Luhoan head in three-color glazed stoneware ("sancai"), probably late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) or Republic (1912-1949)
Posing a smiling or smirk depending on the angle from which it is observed, this impressive head was undoubtedly part of a very large seated statue of Luhoan in a Buddhist temple.
The tradition of representing the saints of Buddhism in terracotta or stoneware dates back to the Ming dynasty and this head can be compared to a series of several large seated Luhoans in three-color enamelled stoneware currently distributed in several museums around the world. Long attributed to the Liao dynasty (907-1125), on the basis of a technique close to Tang Sancai ceramics, these famous and long enigmatic figures are today considered later and we agree to think that they were made at the start of the Ming dynasty in northern China.
Like the rest of the art of glazed terracotta which developed during the Ming dynasty to adorn the ridges of temples and palaces, these large stoneware figures were probably commissioned by some important notables of a province. We can also assume that, like the Ming terracotta used to decorate the roofs and walls of pagodas, - we even find splendid ones on the roofs and walls of the Forbidden City in Beijing - The use of stoneware with a three-color glaze (the simplest to make from common pigments) made it possible to populate at a lower cost the local temples of Buddhist worship in full swing during this dynasty.
There is no doubt today that enamelled stoneware or terracotta were above all for the Ming an unparalleled practical and financial solution, especially when compared to bronze, which was easily plundered to make weapons - or stone, very difficult to sculpt. Massive and heavy, these vivid and expressive representations of the figures of the Buddhist panthon did not risk being stolen and it was easy to replace them in the event of deterioration.
The present head is probably part of that tradition of monumental folk art which continued even beyond, in fact throughout the Qing, because the art of roof tiles to which the firing technique of such an object obviously belongs continued well after the Ming and did not stop at the truth until the end of the Empire since it was constantly necessary to fire again new tiles to replace on monuments those damaged by natural elements.
We must therefore not exclude that the monumental Luhoan of which this head has not come down to us was executed at the end of the Empire or in the beginnings of the Republic of China: it would then have been a question of filling one of these voids left by the disappearance or destruction of some large relics following the pillaging of Buddhist temples from the Summer Palace looting.
Its flat face is very characteristic of the Chinese of the North, which also corresponds to the tradition of the giant Buddhas sheltered in natural caves such as in the Yungang and Longmen caves and this head corresponds well by its size to the Buddhas often mutilated and decapitated but in stone found there.
Extensive research has not made it possible to find an equivalent to this monumental head which appears to be a unique masterpiece. Extensive research has not made it possible to find an equivalent to this monumental head which appears to be a unique masterpiece. It has been tested twice by means of Oxford thermoluminescence with a result each time indicating a probable date of manufacture at the end of the Qing or under the Republic period. However the burnished base and the glaze flakes could come from an exposure to fire, and it is attested that the exposure of terracottas or stonewares to a fire empties the crystals dating from thermoluminescence by bringing their clock back to the date of this fire, we can therefore assume that the Oxford test is not entirely conclusive or satisfactory for this object, although it is binding in the current state of our knowledge.
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