Railing from a temple

Marble panel

550-77 (made)


A.54-1937 EAS

Panel from a funerary couch, carved with paradise scenes; China, 550-77

This marble slab is carved in shallow relief with ?paradise scenes. Above are musicians, below pairs of male and female dancers and a central fire altar flanked by half-human attendants. They are interspersed with pierced shapes. At either end are two large guardian figures, one is Chinese and the other is non-Chinese.

This slab supported a rectangular coffin platform, or funerary couch, made for a Sogdian official. Sogdians, natives of modern Uzbekistan, travelled and traded in north China. They practised Zoroastrianism, a fire-worshipping religion, and exposed their dead rather than cremating them. In the centre of the panel is a Zoroastrian fire altar, flanked by half-human attendants. Near the edges are huge guardian figures, Chinese on the left and foreign on the right. Above, musicians accompany the deceased on his journey to the afterlife.

Eumorfopoulos Collection This object came from the collections of George Eumorfopoulos (1863-1939), the son of a Greek merchant. George entered the firm of Ralli Brothers, merchants, of London, of which for a time he was representative in south Russia; he rose eventually to be vice-president and retired in 1934. Soon after his marriage in 1890, Eumorfopoulos started collecting, moving from European porcelain to an interest in Chinese. It was a time when knowledge of Chinese art in the West was about to expand rapidly: archaeology and railway construction in north China cut into tombs richly furnished with pottery figures and vessels of the first to the tenth century. In his preface to the first of the six volumes of R. L. Hobson's monumental catalogue of his Chinese and other Eastern ceramics (1925-8), Eumorfopoulos recorded that it was in 1906 that he saw the first specimens of tomb wares: 'First came the Han, then the Tang (figures of horses and camels first in 1910), and lastly the Wei' (Hobson, The George Eumorfopoulos Collection, vii). His collection grew rapidly until it became remarkably representative of the ceramics of the Song and earlier periods. Eumorfopoulos then launched out into the field of Chinese archaic bronzes and jades, and eventually of sculpture and paintings as well, until his collection became the greatest of his time. Eumorfopoulos had intended to bequeath his collection to the nation, but in 1934 he found it necessary to realize a part. Accordingly, he offered the national museums all that they required of the Chinese section for £100,000, a sum estimated at the time to be well under half the market value. The money was found, and a division between the British and Victoria and Albert museums was made on a basis of three to two. After the sale of 1934, Eumorfopoulos still continued to buy Chinese antiquities; his taste was wide, however, ranging from Islamic and medieval art to modern European painting and sculpture. The vitality of his judgement is shown in the remarkable examples of contemporary work which he acquired, largely through his patronage of young artists, in particular sculptors: he owned paintings by Matisse and sculptures by Barbara Hepworth. He also supported archaeological studies and was one of the founders of the Oriental Ceramic Society and its first president from 1921 until his death at 7 Chelsea Embankment on 19 December 1939. His remaining collections were sold at auction by Sothebys from 28 to 31 May and on 5 and 6 June 1940 and, after his widow's death, in 1944. His collection is represented in the major national collections of Chinese art. Information taken from Basil Gray, rev. M. Tregear, DNB website. Historical significance: This piece was once thought to be a piece of temple railing from a Buddhist temple. In 2007 research was undertaken by Beth McKillop who discovered that it is probably a Zoroastrian fire altar, made in China.

Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund, the Vallentin Bequest, Sir Percival David and the Universities China Committee

Location: China, room 47e

View this object on the V&A website