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China through the Magnifying Glass

Miniature and small objects in detail
Clarissa von Spee, Chair of Asian Art, James and Donna Reid Curator of Chinese Art, and Interim Curator of Islamic Art
December 22, 2022
Axe, 1766–1045 BCE. China, Shang dynasty (c. 1600–c. 1046 BCE). 1941.549

The CMA’s current initiative to undertake 3-D photogrammetry of its collection comes into full use in the museum’s exhibition China through the Magnifying Glass: Masterpieces in Miniature and Detail. A leading institution in digital innovation, the museum has begun scanning and photographing artworks from all angles to make 3-D images accessible to the public on Collection Online and in the galleries. The option to view objects digitally in 3-D, side by side with the original, augments the visitor’s experience in new and exciting ways and expands on the museum’s success using digital media in the recent Revealing Krishna exhibition.

In China through the Magnifying Glass, one way of making scale and size a central theme is by juxtaposing large and small objects of the same type. The section “Ritual and Devotion” features a large and a small ancient bronze tripod of the ding-type. Another intriguing object, the fragment of an early bronze weapon, is the head of an owl with large eyes and ears sitting above the blade of a halberd axe missing its staff. It is not clear whether the owl motif deterred evil and harm from its carrier, or whether the axe was used in rituals or as a weapon in warfare. Monks, merchants, pilgrims, and other adepts of Buddhism used small devotional items as well. Portable Buddhist figures and objects were carried in processions and on pilgrimages and may have had a protective function on long travels. Individuals could make donations of devotional items to religious communities and sites, which was seen as a way to accumulate good deeds over one’s lifetime. These were given in hope of receiving the blessings of a deity or with the intention that one’s own wishes would be included in the prayers of the local clergy. Small votive items could be carried home as souvenirs from pilgrimages or were placed on private altars and in shrines. 

Chinese miniatures featuring Seated Buddha, Textile Ornament Phoenix, Seal with Reclining QiLin, and Snuff Bottle with European Figures
Seated Buddha 600s. China, Tang dynasty (618–907). Gilt bronze; 13.3 x 6.9 cm. Gift of Mrs. John Lyon Collyer in memory of her mother, Mrs. G. M. G. Forman, 1961.18 
Textile Ornament (?): Phoenix c. 700s. China, Tang dynasty (618–907). Beaten gold with chased detail; 12 x 10.4 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1942.1083.1 
Seal with Reclining Qilin 1736–95. China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Qianlong reign (1736–95). Tianhuang stone; h. 6.4 cm. Anonymous gift, 1952.494 
Snuff Bottle with European Figures 1736–95. China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Qianlong reign (1736–95). Painted enamel on copper; h. 7.4 cm. Seventy-fifth anniversary gift of Mrs. Noah L. Butkin, 1991.126 

A highlight in “The Scholar’s Desk” section is a seal surmounted by a qilin, an auspicious mythical beast. Made of the highly prized amber-colored tianhuang (yellow field) stone, a type of soapstone sourced from the province of Fujian in South China, the seal has an oval base showing three carved characters that read Shenyu Studio: 慎餘齋. Enclosed by two dragons, the characters are the sobriquet of a writer, collector, or artist, groups who often used studio titles in place of their proper names. Like a signature, seals served to impress one’s name or motto onto a painting, calligraphy, or document either as its owner or author.

Objects demonstrating intriguing virtuosity in knife skills are presented in the section “Luxury and Pride in Craftsmanship.” Most of them date from the Ming (1368−1644) and Qing (1644−1911) dynasties, when luxury items became more affordable to larger parts of society, including women, merchants, officials, and literati in nonofficial positions. Imperial patronage and a growing urban population stimulated the production and consumption of luxury goods and local craftsmanship at the time. Objects in this section illustrate superb carving skills in ivory, bamboo, and jade. Talent, creativity, and an inventive mind were required, as artisans had to work for an increasingly competitive market. Two intricately carved ivory boxes may have been used as decorative items for cosmetic powder or ointments.

The section “Accessories and Ornaments” presents a wide range of materials and dates. Used as precious accessories or decorative ornaments, ancient jade carvings with small holes seem to have been pendants, while belt hooks held garments together and conveyed status. In addition, ornaments of gold inlay and silver foil decorated the backsides of mirrors or were applied to textiles. A pair of phoenixes made of thin gold foil have tiny holes all along their edges, suggesting that the birds were sewn on textiles. Snuff bottles were introduced from Europe to China around the 18th century. Conceived as precious containers for ground tobacco or other medicinal powders, the bottles were initially made for the imperial court in China. They were later produced in much greater quantities for users who enjoyed them as items of luxury and symbols of status. Western motifs were fashionable at court, of which the enamel painted flask with a Qianlong reign mark is a good example. 

China through the Magnifying Glass advocates for visitors to take time to enjoy and look closely at small-scale objects, aided by 3-D imagery. Each section questions the objects’ functions and roles in society as a way of achieving a better understanding of China’s culture and history. Throughout, it explores the power of the object to mesmerize and intrigue, as fascination with the minute and the small is a worldwide phenomenon. 

Pair of Boxes in Form of Lotus Leaves
Pair of Boxes in Form of Lotus Leaves 1700s. China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Ivory; h. 5.1 cm. Gift of Lois Clarke, 1970.137