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Man’s funerary finery

Man’s funerary finery

First quarter of the 12th century, Liao Dynasty (907 – 1125)
Inner Mongolia or Liaoning
Gilded metal
H : 24.1cm L : 21.5cm (mask), H : 23.7cm L : 28.3cm (headdress)
M.C. 2001-8 (mask), M.C. 2001-9 (headdress)

The components of these two sets of funerary finery provide a lot of precious information on burial methods used by the Khitan elite during the Liao dynasty. The Khitan dressed mummified bodies in sophisticated funerary costumes, using some metallic elements. The Official Liao History makes only a vague mention of these funerary accessories, simply calling them “objects that cover the cadaver”. Two tombs discovered during the 1980s revealed dressed remains, preserved sufficiently well enough to verify and expand upon the few details mentioned in ancient texts (Nei Menggu, 1993).

Each of the masks in the Cernuschi Museum was created from a single leaf of hammered bronze; the particular attention paid to polishing was then completed with gilding. Funerary masks are by far the most common elements found during excavations. They are ornamented with rare details, delicately incised, so that moustaches, on their own, can definitively distinguish male masks from their female equivalents. Their closed eyelids draw an elegant sinuous line. The perforations on the mask edges were instrumental in attaching masks to mesh shrouds. The ear lobe may have been decorated with earrings; one earring, in the shape of a feline, is still in place on the female mask. Earrings were especially fashionable under the Liao, though not peculiar to the Khitan and, contrary to an opinion held widely even at the time, were very fashionable in the neighbouring Song Empire (Zhang, 1987, p.26).

Earrings or decorations of the time, the pendants shaped by two pearls of a milky material set in gold are distinctive by the unusual size of their clasps. They match a necklace created from rock crystal, amethyst and gold elements. The presence of these mixed necklaces is recurrent in Liao tombs. On the other hand, funerary headdresses are more rare: a few textile headdresses have presumably survived. Each of the Cernuschi Museum’s masks is associated with a gilded metal headdress, created with openwork panels and assembled by wire.

The gilded silver masculine headdress features a more complex craftsmanship. Twenty-four openwork panels with indented outlines in brackets are organised into groups of three on a frame formed of four stems. Each is decorated with a mandarin duck or a phoenix, which are answered by eight birds balancing on the end of metallic wires. These mobile elements evoke the buyao head ornaments from the Three Yan Period (335 – 436) and the Korean Kingdom of Goguryeo (37 B.C. – 668 A.D.), found in northeast China. The iconography, on the other hand, no longer resembles the world of the steppes but Chinese culture: the most frequent themes are dragons or phoenixes associated with the fiery jewel. Although they are not mentioned in the Official Liao History, these headdresses could have been used in formal costumes for officials. The search for antecedents is wide open: the use of openwork metal leaf might date back to the crowns of the Korean kingdom Silla.

The stylistic characteristics of this rare funerary set suggest that it dates back to the first quarter of the 12th century.

Collection : Liao Dynasty (907-1125)
Mode d'acquisition : Donation of Mrs and Mr Agnès and Christian Deydier, 2001.

Parure funéraire masculine
© Musée Cernuschi