Earthenware with three–color (sancai) glaze; H. 12 3/4 in. (32.5 cm)
Gift of Stanley Herzman, in memory of Adele Herzman, 1991 (1991.253.4)
China's contacts with countries to the west reached a peak in the first half of the eighth century during the reign of the Tang emperor Xuanzong (r. 71256). Along the trade routes crossing the vast Taklamakan Desert, merchants and missionaries carried Chinese silk to the west and Buddhist manuscripts, spices, and foreign merchandise back to China. Luxurious goods such as Persian silverware and textiles were in high demand by the Chinese nobility, and the result of the Tang quest for the exotic is visible in the ceramic vessels recovered from burial grounds.
One type of earthenware vessel, excavated mainly in Shaanxi and Henan provinces, is exemplified by this phoenix-headed ewer. Made with a mould, the ornaments on its sides include half-palmettes framing a mounted archer delivering his "Parthian shot," a demonstration of excellent horsemanship in which the mounted archer turns to fire at a target directly behind him. The vessel's shape is based on an Iranian or Central Asian prototype, and the low-fire sancai (three-color) lead glaze, chiefly in brown, green, and blue with various gradations, is a typical design in Tang ceramics. The opulent colors of the sancai glaze, freely applied to the vessel, reflect the exuberant spirit of the great Tang empire.