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Animals in Art



Heavenly Horses
China, <I>Celestial Horse</I>, Eastern Han dynasty, bronze with traces of polychrome, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton
zoom China, Celestial Horse, Eastern Han dynasty, bronze with traces of polychrome, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton

 

Horses were highly prized in ancient China. The military and the elite wanted powerful horses for riding and pulling elaborate carriages. During the Han dynasty (206 B.C. through A.D. 220), a superior breed of horses was discovered in the Ferghana Basin in Central Asia (modern Afghanistan). The Chinese recognized their great value and decided to obtain these horses through military force and trade along the Silk Road.

These horses were stronger, faster, and larger than any horse in China and they quickly became symbols of power and prestige. Because of their endurance and speed they were labeled “heavenly horses” and were thought to have divine powers. Unusual red foam on their skin also earned them the nickname “blood-sweating horses.” (Actually a parasite-caused skin condition produced the foam when horses’ blood mixed with their sweat.)

This statue represents one of the heavenly horses from the Eastern Han dynasty. Its power is evident in its muscular form, arched neck and spirited expression. Statues such as this one were placed in the tombs of aristocrats, along with replicas of dogs, pigs, chickens, dancers, and musicians to provide for the dead in the afterlife.


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1. Originally, this bronze horse was painted. Today, the bronze has corroded to beautiful green and blue tones. Black, red, and white pigments are still visible around the eyes, mouth, and mane.
2. Not all horse figures were made of bronze; this heavenly horse was made of clay. How does the shape and stance of this horse compare to Celestial Horse?
China, Eastern Han dynasty, Prancing Horse, earthenware with traces of pigment, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton
3. Horses weren’t the only animals to decorate tombs. This model houses a clay boar, sow, and suckling piglets.
China, Western Han dynasty, Funerary Model of a Pig Sty, earthenware, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, gift of Alan and Dena Naylor in memory of Thomas E. Leary

 

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April 2008