The Ming Dynasty, called the Empire of Great Brightness, is one of the greatest in human history. During its reign (1368-1644), the Great Wall was built, the Grand Canal connecting north and south was restored, the capital of Beijing was established with its Forbidden City, and trade and diplomatic relationships with the West flourished. The arts flourished under Ming emperors, too; the treasures from their palaces and temples have long been the subject of museum exhibitions.
"Royal Taste: The Art of Princely Courts in 15th-Century China" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art takes us far from the royal court. We are immersed instead in Huguang Province, far south of Beijing, an area that was far from provincial. There and in other outposts, royal princes lived out their days.
The first Ming emperor, who had overthrown Mongol rule, first ensconced his 24 sons (minus the crown prince) in outlying regions to act as guardians of the empire with their own political and military authority. A later emperor, wanting to keep power consolidated, removed that of the princely families, who still received generous allowances to keep them happy. It is this period, beginning in the early 15th century, that the exhibition mostly documents.
Lacking any major responsibilities, the generations of families lived lives of luxury and leisure, some becoming connoisseurs of theater and art and religious patrons of temples. The exhibition gives us examples of these interests, many of which were found in tombs discovered only recently. The artworks had escaped looting, but years of flooding had destroyed all but the sturdier materials such as precious metals, stones and ceramics.
The lifestyle of these families reflected the protocols and formality of the emperor's court but in a scaled-down version. Some of the most beautiful pieces come from the tomb of the Prince of Liang and his second wife, Lady Wei. She had a sumptuous collection of jewelry that ranged from "everyday" hair pins to ceremonial pieces, all in gold and studded with rubies, sapphires and emeralds, embellished further with carved jade. The prince had his share of finery, including a set of 24 belt plaques of gold and gemstones, which would have been connected by leather or silk that rotted during a 500-year interment. Each had a set of tiny, adorable personal hygiene items: tweezers, ear pick and toothpick. Many of the items exemplify the high level of craftsmanship for which the Ming Dynasty was known, especially the sophistication of filigree work and stone-setting. The Prince of Liang received some things as gifts from the emperor, but he had his own gold and silver workshop that created pieces from his commissions.
Jade was prized above gold and silver, so a waist pendant of jade leaves, a wedding gift to Lady Wei from the imperial court, signifies the status of the groom. The leaves alternate with small carvings of melons and pomegranates (fertility and prosperity), ducks and fish (harmonious relationships) and peaches (peace and longevity).
Sadly, some of the symbols did not portend real life. The prince died when he was about 30. Lady Wei intended to commit suicide, as was the custom for childless consorts. She was pardoned by the emperor so that she could raise the daughters of a concubine and lived for another 10 years, dying in her mid-30s. Among the possessions in the couple's tomb are a pair of gilded silver plates carved with a message from the emperor on the occasion of their marriage.
Faith was a central component of the dynasty, and in this period, the predominant religion was Daoism, also known as Taoism. In one gallery we see statues illustrating the narrative of the Daoist deities, mostly cast in bronze. One of the most dramatic items in the show is a circle of carved limestone, almost 4 feet in diameter and weighing more than 1,000 pounds, taken from a deteriorating temple in the 1960s. Accompanying this portion of the exhibition is a video of the legendary temple complex built on a mountain in the Wudang range, known as Wudangshan. It had been a sacred site for centuries before the 15th, but a Ming emperor greatly expanded the complex.
"Royal Taste" also has lovely displays of Ming Dynasty ceramics and scroll paintings, household objects, clothing and illustrations of royal life. This is the first time these objects have been exhibited outside China, and major kudos go to Fan J. Zhang, the Ringling's curator of Asian art. He collaborated with Chinese museum leaders to organize the show and produce a gorgeous catalog, which I recommend. He also passed along the hopeful news that more princely tombs will probably be discovered.
Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.