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Traveling Coffer

Asian Art

This lacquered traveling trunk might have been used by a discerning, elite world traveler on the ancient Silk Road. Crafted in China, likely for the Central Asian market, the trunk features an inscription under the front of the lid: “Made by the Ou family of Wenzhou, Xinhe Street, Anning Ward.” Wenzhou, in Zhejiang province in southeastern China, was a center of lacquer production since the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). The central medallion on the front depicts auspicious Chinese motifs, including a mythological lion chasing a brocaded ball, and the lid is adorned with phoenixes (fenghuang). The decorative techniques used here are called “engraved gold” (qiangjin) and “engraved color” (qiangcai), in which gold leaf, powder, or pigmented lacquer is placed in lines engraved in the lacquer ground; they are also used in the production of Islamic book covers. The design motifs relate to silk textiles from Central Asia, blue-and-white porcelains, and other ceramics in China and Southeast Asia. Chinese lacquers like this were exported to Egypt, eastern Iran, and Central Asia since the mid-fourteenth century as luxury goods and reflect the exchange of motifs and techniques on global trade routes.
MEDIUM Lacquer over leather, bamboo, wood, with metal mounts
  • Place Made: China
  • DATES ca. 1250–1290
    DYNASTY Southern Song or Yuan Dynasty
    PERIOD Southern Song to Yuan Dynasty
    DIMENSIONS 17 1/4 x 29 x 16 1/4 in. (43.8 x 73.7 x 41.3 cm)  (show scale)
    INSCRIPTIONS Inscribed, under the front of cover: "Wenzhou xinheijie anningfang xia Ou jia shenghuo" (Made by the Ou family of Wenzhou, Xinhe Street, Anning ward)
    CREDIT LINE Gift of the Asian Art Council
    CATALOGUE DESCRIPTION Engraved with animals and flowers in roundels against a dense floral ground. Traveler’s coffer or trunk, very generally rectangular in form, the sides, front and back gently swelling and curving under to a flat bottom; the top slightly domed, secured on the back by two metal loop hinges and on the front by a pendant flap protected by a metal plate and fitting over two metal loops to hold a lick. On the front and back each are two broad, flat loops, used to secure straps or cords tied around the trunk. The entire outside of the trunk, with the possible exception of the bottom, is covered with an elaborate graffito decoration in colored lacquer. Various colors, including red, green, yellow, gold, and white are overlaid with a layer of black and the design is cut through the black to reveal the color underneath. All visible surfaces are decorated in this manner with dense patterns and designs, while plain black covers the areas concealed by the overlapping edges of the lid. The elaborate decoration consists of variations of a number of design elements. The backgrounds are filled with dense red floral designs of five-petal flowers and small leaves springing from winding stems. On the top, back and front, these are set off against geometric ornament based on floral designs, the main area surrounded with narrow bands derived from scrolling palmetto designs. The corners of the top, back and front are accented with variations on a pointed "cloud collar: design composed of alternating simple curves and broad spirals. Each of these forms on the front and back is filled with an all-over stylized flower and leaf design. The corners of the top are filled with a "fish scale" design. The broad areas of the design are highlighted with carefully drawn roundels, each revealing at the center a pinhole from the compass used to draw the roundel borders. The rounded designs include various stylized six- and eight-petal flowers, flower and leaf medallions, and an axially symmetrical abstract design possibly representing two birds circling each other. In the center of the back panel is a four-pointed medallion depicting a goose flying with a long stalk of grass in its beak. On the front is a similar panel showing a mythological lion chasing a brocade ball with long trailing ribbons. An on the top is a panel with two circling "fenghuang" Chinese phoenixes, distinguished by details of their plumage as male and female. Under the flap on the front is a 13-character inscription, also cut through the black top layer of color, reading "Wenzhou xinhejie anningfang xia Ou jia shenghuo", that is "Made by the Ou family of Wenzhou, Xinhe street, Anning ward." Song (960-1279) and Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) lacquers with inscriptions noting their place of manufacture, including Wenzhou in Zhejiang province have been excavated in China in recent years. An 1147 description of the Northern Song capital at Kaifeng specifically mentions lacquer transported approximately 600 miles from Wenzhou. Condition: The trunk has been cleaned and conserved by Roger Bolton-Smith, London. In general the lacquer surfaces have been consolidated over areas of loss or major repair with plain black.
    MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
    CAPTION Traveling Coffer, ca. 1250–1290. Lacquer over leather, bamboo, wood, with metal mounts, 17 1/4 x 29 x 16 1/4 in. (43.8 x 73.7 x 41.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Asian Art Council, 1996.68. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 1996.68_SL1.jpg)
    IMAGE overall, 1996.68_SL1.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph
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    RIGHTS STATEMENT Creative Commons-BY
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