Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

A New Visual Language Transmitted Across Asia

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In the creation of luxury textiles and objects for the Mongol elite, Chinese artists developed a visual language that was an effective means of establishing their rule and consolidating their presence throughout the vast empire. A number of motifs that were part of the existing artistic repertoire were adopted as imperial symbols of power and dominance—the dragon and the phoenix, for example, two mythical beasts that integrated the ideas of cosmic force, earthly strength, superior wisdom, and eternal life. The Mongol versions of the creatures are the highly decorative sinuous dragon with legs, horns, and beard and the large bird with a spectacular feathered tail floating in the air (12.49.4). In Iran, these motifs were often paired and became so popular with the Ilkhanids that they eventually lost their original meaning, becoming part of the common artistic repertoire in the first half of the fourteenth century.

Other motifs of this period that were familiar throughout the Asian continent are the peony, the lotus flower (91.1.559), and the lyrical image of the recumbent deer, or djeiran, gazing at the moon. The flowers, often seen in combination and viewed from both the side and top, provided ideal patterns for textiles and for filling dense backgrounds on all kinds of portable objects. The djeiran became widespread in the decorative arts because of the well-established association of similar quadrupeds with hunting scenes.

For the semi-nomadic Mongols, portable textiles and clothing were the best means of demonstrating their acquired wealth and power, so it is reasonable to assume that the main mode of transmission of motifs such as the dragon and peony was through luxury textiles. The most prominent clothing accessories were belts of precious metal (gold belt plaques, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art). Many of the textiles illustrated here prove transmission from east to west, yet in some instances, exemplified by the Chinese silk with addorsed griffins (cloth of gold: winged lions and griffins, The Cleveland Museum of Art), the origin of the image is clearly Central or western Asia. The Mongol period is unique in art history because it permitted the cross-fertilization of artistic motifs via the movement of craftsmen and artists throughout a politically unified continent.

Stefano Carboni
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Qamar Adamjee
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wine jar with lion-head handles, Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) China
Porcelain, underglaze painted; 15 1/2 x 14 3/4 in. (39.4 x 37.5 cm)
John L. Severance Fund (1962.154)
The Cleveland Museum of Art
Vase, Yuan dynasty (1279–1368)
Stoneware, molded decoration, Longquan celadon ware; H. 19 7/8 in. (50.4 cm)
Inner Mongolia Museum, Hohhot
Textile with winged lions and griffins, mid-13th century Central Asia
Lampas weave (tabby and tabby), gold thread on silk foundation; 48 7/8 x 19 1/4 in. (124 x 48.8 cm)
Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund (1989.50)
The Cleveland Museum of Art
Three belt plaques, 13th century
Southern Russia or Central Asia
Gold, repoussé, chased, and engraved; granulation; With ring: 1 3/4 x 1 1/8 in. (4.4 x 2.9 cm); 1 1/8 x 1 1/8 in. (2.8 x 2.8 cm); 7/8 x 1 1/2 in. (2.3 x 3.7 cm)
The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London