Published Apr 3 2013, by

Pair of Roof Tiles

Chinese architecture of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) is perhaps most recog­nizably embodied in the design of the central building of the Forbidden City, the Taihe Dian (Hall of Supreme Harmony). This structure is as emblematic of the culture of China as the Parthenon is of the culture of Greece. It incor-porates a wide variety of architectural embellishments, ranging from ornate doors and clerestory windows to akroteria and decorative roof tiles. Such deco­rations were not, however, restricted to the imperial buildings of the capital; they also graced religious buildings in the outskirts of Beijing.

This pair of roof tiles is an elaborate example of a type commonly placed on Ming-dynasty buildings. They were specially designed to sit at the outer edges of the main roof beam, giving the upper edges of the timber-and-tile roof a distinctive silhouette. The earthenware tiles were pressed, before the clay dried, into a carved, concave mold. Then they were glazed and fired. In this case, the resulting raised decoration is in the shape of a makara, a mythological Indian creature that was introduced into Chinese art during the Tang dynasty (618–907). A composite creature, similar to a dragon, with parts drawn from other animals, the makara was a water spirit that was a natural averter of fire. This attribute made it a popular apotropaic subject for the tiles placed on the ends of roof ridges. The makaras depicted on each of these tiles are flanked by small, more recognizably Chinese, dragons. The light silver oxidation on the stunning bright green–glazed surface of the fig­ures, especially the noses of the makaras, suggests their long exposure to wind and weather.