Tomb Panel with Relief of Figures in a Pavilion

Period: Eastern Han dynasty (25–220)

Date: early 2nd century A.D.

Culture: China

Medium: Limestone

Dimensions: H. 31 1/4 in. (79.4 cm); W. 50 in. (127 cm); D. 8 in. (20.3 cm)

Classification: Sculpture

Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1920

Accession Number: 20.99


The fabulous birds and winged immortal on the central roof of this building in relief suggest a paradisiacal rather than an earthly realm. Four towers—the larger ones decorated with a tiger (left) and a dragon (right), the pair at the back with standing attendants—flank the open, two-storied pavilion. Columns with tripartite capitals support the platform of the second level and the roof. The figure at right center, distinguished by her large bird-headed cap and flowing gown, represents Xiwangmu, known as Queen Mother of the West. A complicated and multivalent figure, Xiwangmu was thought to rule the land of the immortals (located somewhere west of China) and played a major role in Han beliefs.

Significant changes occurred in Chinese funerary practices during the first century A.D., as tombs replaced ancestral temples as the focus of rites. Family cemeteries filled with lavish tombs constructed prior to the owner's death became the settings for banquets, musical performances, and the display of art. Stone began to be used, possibly reflecting the influence of growing ties with India, and replaced brick as the principal architectural medium. State sponsorship of Confucianism led to the development of a new funerary iconography that extolled virtues such as proper conduct and filial piety. The hierarchical placement of Xiwangmu and her attendants in the pavilion is typical of later Han representations of heavenly courts, which, under the influence of Confucianism, began to parallel the organization of earthly ones.