Published 2016, by

Compassion, Reverence, and Filial Piety: A Pair of Stone Vases

Pair of Stone Vases. China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), 16th–17th century. White marble. 115 inches tall each. Crow Collection of Asian Art, 1984.30

Fig. 1 Stone Altar and Five Stone OfferingsWEB

Figure 1 | Stone Altar and Five Stone Offerings (1605). Beijing China, Ming dynasty (1368-1644). At the tomb of the imperial eunuch Tian Yi (1534-1605). Photographers: Xiang Di and Shu Yue.

Making offerings is an important step in the worshiping of ancestors in Chinese history; it is an act that reflects people’s belief of afterlife and ancestors’ protection of offspring. The Crow Collection’s Pair of Stone Vases, previously called “Stone Columns,” are examples of two of the Five Stone Offerings often installed in front of a tomb during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties in China.

China has a long-standing tradition of making Five Offerings to ancestors. These offerings exhibit support and reverence toward the deceased and good wishes to family members of those who have passed. The offerings, which include incense, flowers, light, water, and fruit, are placed on an altar in front of an ancestor’s portrait at a family shrine or in a living room during a special day, such as Chinese New Year. The Five Offerings are actually influenced by Buddhists and Daoists who used these same offerings to worship their gods.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Chinese elites, especially the imperial family members, installed five stone carved objects in front of the tombs of their deceased family members, including one censer, a pair of flower vases, and a pair of candlesticks, symbolizing the offerings of incense, flowers, and light. They also installed a stone altar with offerings of water and fruits in front of the five stone objects (fig. 1). These stone objects are significant because they symbolize the permanent offerings placed in front of the ancestor’s tomb.

The stone vases from the Crow Collection are two of the five originally installed in front of a tomb, and their iconography indicates a date to a period of the Ming dynasty. Because of the dragon motifs (an emblem of imperial families) carved on the pedestals of the vases, this pair of stone vases may have been removed from a tomb of a Ming dynasty imperial family member.

Figure 2 | Detail, Pair of Stone Vases, China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), 16th–17th century, White marble, 115 inches tall each.

The splendid carvings hold both reverent and auspicious meanings. Each vase has a foliate-carved finial above a square tapered quadrangular mid-section, and a foliate-carved ground with barbed medallions. The medallions contain figures that separately depict scenes from the deceased’s lifetime and images of people’s reverence for the dead in front of the tomb (fig. 2). The lower sections of the vases feature lotus motifs and auspicious animals, which symbolize the pure lotus pond in the Western Paradise of Buddhism, in which people would like to be reborn. A separate lower pedestal with overlapping lotus petals at the upper border (above a band of scrolled lotus designs with a recessed mid-section) symbolizes the purity of the next world. A flaming pearl centers the lower part of the pedestal with confronted dragons, demonstrating the propitious nature of the deceased’s afterlife and his social status during his lifetime.

The dramatic beauty of the Pair of Stone Vases offers a fascinating glimpse of the reverence with which ancestors were treated, the deep connection between past and present, and the hopefulness with which ancient Chinese peoples viewed the afterlife.

-Dr. Qing Chang
Research Curator