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Friday, June 1 • 3:30pm - 4:00pm
(Material Transfers & Translations) Flaming Pearls and Flying Phoenixes: Materiality, Research, and Stewardship of Liao Dynasty Metalwork

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Metalwork from the Liao Dynasty (907-1125 CE) displays material and technical mastery that draws on the metalware and gilding traditions from the Tang and Song dynasties in China. When the nomadic Khitan people created the Liao polity, their military dominance, worldview, and cultural tastes culminated in a rich physical heritage. The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston has three opulent Khitan funerary objects in its collection: a Mongolian-style gilded bronze saddle (with original wooden substrate), a pair of gilded silver boots, and a gilded silver crown. The choice of precious materials, employment of specialized knowledge, and incorporation of kingship iconography highlights the importance and power of these objects within the culture of the Liao Dynasty. The discovery of these highly decorative and luxurious objects in noble tombs suggests they served a ritual function within the burial customs of elites. The manufacture of utilitarian forms (e.g. saddle and boots) in prized materials unsuitable for functioning objects highlights the importance of the nomadic identity even in death. Decorative programs incorporating flaming-pearls, phoenixes, dragons, ruyi clouds, scrolls, and vegetal motifs employ a Buddhist visual vocabulary common in the Liao Dynasty. Through their funerary objects, the individual identities can be contextualized and encapsulated through the manipulation of physical materials. This materials-based interpretation is grounded in scientific analysis (e.g. energy-dispersive x-ray fluorescence, electron microprobe, Fourier-transformation infrared spectroscopy, and wood identification) and imaging (e.g. x-ray radiography and reflectance transformation imaging) in conjunction with research of other Liao Dynasty comparanda.

Transcendency of materials in the pursuit of form can embed meaning and cultural significance in ways not readily apparent. The sheet metal used to make the gilded silver boots were cut to form in a manner similar to the textile footwear counterpart while the unusual choice of metal substrate (i.e. pure copper) for the saddle complicates the traditional interpretation of this equine apparatus. Increased awareness of the Liao Dynasty metalwork tradition and new archaeological finds are slowly changing the narrative of the Khitan people from “barbaric” nomadic outsiders to cultural-empowered elites. The MFA initially acquired and understood the gilded silver crown as a Korean flat plaque; however, this interpretation was soon abandoned with subsequent archaeological excavations and the discovery of similar forms in the shape of a crown. In the early 1960s, museum restorers decided to reshape the plaque, using the annealing process, to its current crown form. This significant intervention and other smaller treatments (i.e. reducing tarnish, passivating active corrosion, and stabilizing structural breaks) illustrates the degree museum restorers and later conservators re-contextualized and cared for these Khitan funerary objects. Treatment decisions are scrutinized against their historical frameworks as new technologies (i.e. three-dimensional imaging and printing) offer exciting avenues of research and options for display and accessibility. As the museum strives to understand these enigmatic objects, the Liao Dynasty funerary metalware continues to offer a glimpse into the material mastery of the Khitan people and the world in which they lived.

avatar for Evelyn Mayberger

Evelyn Mayberger

Assistant Conservator, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Eve holds a B.A. in Art History with a concentration in Asian Art from Wesleyan University. She graduated with a M.A. and M.S. degrees in art history and conservation at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University where she specialized in objects conservation. Eve has worked in... Read More →

Friday June 1, 2018 3:30pm - 4:00pm MDT
Texas Ballroom B Marriott Marquis Houston