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Important and rare massive limestone Chimera

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An extremely important and rare massive limestone Chimera\nSix Dynasties, first half of 6th century, The ferocious beast powerfully striding forward in an alert and threatening pose, with head held high and chest thrown out, the mouth wide open baring its teeth in a fierce and vicious roar, staring intensely through large bulging eyes above flared nostrils and funnel-form ears set between swirling locks of hair at the mouth and brows, the long sinuous beard falling to a curled tip at the broad, protruding chest accentuated with pronounced ribbing, all below two slender horns curving down from the top of the head to the neck, arching in an elegant S-curve to the body, flanked by a pair of elaborately carved wings extending back from the front haunches on either side of the gently ridged spine, embellished in low relief with frond-like scales, stand\nQuantity: 2\n42 1/2 by 46 1/2 in., 108 by 118 cm


This magnificent chimera is an extremely rare example of early stone tomb statuary in China, belonging to an important group of beasts once described by scholars as “the most noble creatures to guard any tomb in Asia” (Cf. Sickman and Soper, op. cit., p. 62).  In its powerful yet elegant modelling, this large beast occupies a significant position in the classical tradition of Chinese sculpture and provides as much insight into the funerary customs as the aesthetic ideals sponsored in China between the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and the Southern Dynasties period (420-589 AD).

The term ‘chimera’ refers to the expression first introduced by the French sinologist Victor Segalen (1878-1919) to describe a fantastical creature with the head of a dragon, horns of a ram, body of a lion and wings of a bird.  Such beasts first appeared in Chinese art in the form of small jade carvings during the Han dynasty, around the same time that they gained prominence as monumental adornments lining so-called ‘spirit paths’ leading to the tombs or mausoleums of the Imperial family or other individuals of high rank. Along with tall stone columns and pairs of epitaphs usually in the form of tall tablets mounted on turtles, large double-horned stone chimeras were paired with single-horned beasts and placed facing each other at the beginning of these sacred paths to act as guardians against evil spirits (Figs. 1, 2, 7).

The present chimera represents the zenith of ‘spirit path’ statuary in the early 6th century, following nearly two centuries of post-Han proscription against elaborate burial practices and tomb adornment until such practices were gradually re-adopted during the Southern Dynasties.  As discussed in Steven A. Nash et al., op.cit., p. 82, this piece has been considered within the context of the Three Kingdoms period (220-265) as having been “Taken from the tomb of Prince Cao in Dengxian Yizhou prefecture, Shandong province.” However, the sinuous body, its powerful protruding chest and ornately carved details, suggest that it is more likely from an unidentified tomb of the Southern Dynasties period located in the environs of present-day Nanjing, Jiangsu province.

A 2nd century stone chimera in the Luoyang Museum, in Angela Falco Howard et al., Chinese Sculpture, New Haven and London, 2006, p. 92 (Fig. 3), together with one (of a pair) dated to the 3rd to 4th century illustrated in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, A Handbook of the Collection, New York, 1993 p. 302 below (Fig. 4) as well as a pair of smaller Eastern Han stone chimeras in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, that once surmounted tall stone pillars along the ‘spirit paths,' represent early prototypes on which the stone chimeras of the later Southern Dynasties are based.  In comparison, the Albright-Knox chimera is also powerful, yet has been carved with a refined dynamic rhythm felt in the linear details along the ridges of the chest, ribs, spine and wings, and impressively conveys a sense of solidity and strength combined with a subtle suppleness that is noticeably absent in its Han predecessors.  Most unusual are these series of parallel ridges along the chest and at the ribs, a rare feature that appears on but a few examples, including a 3rd century example in the Luoyang Museum that was included in the exhibition China: Dawn of a Golden Age 200-750 A.D., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2004, p. 104 (Fig. 5), and a pair of massive chimera in the University of Pennsylvania Museum (Fig. 6) which, despite having been attributed to the Han dynasty and being nearly twice the size, are stylistically most similar to the present piece.

The early development of the Spirit Road is discussed in Ann Paludan, The Chinese Spirit Road, New Haven, 1991, pp. 28 ff., where examples from the Han dynasty and from successive royal spirit roads of the Southern Dynasties are illustrated.

Despite the number of monumental stone chimeras that have survived in situ in China, only a few can be counted among the treasures of Western collections. Apart from the present figure and the example in the University of Pennsylvania Museum mentioned earlier, a magnificent model of this majestic beast is in the Avery Brundage Collection, now in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and illustrated in Chinese, Korean and Japanese Sculpture in the Avery Brundage Collection, San Francisco, 1974, p. 126, pl. 53.  It is mentioned ibid., p. 126 that this stone figure may be the mate to an identical but faceless chimera, attributed to the Liang and included in Osvald Siren, Chinese Sculpture from the Fifth to the Fourteenth Century, New York, 1925, pl. 12.  A related model of a chimera attributed to the 6th century is in the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm and is published in Osvald Siren, "Winged Chimeras in Early Chinese Art," Eastern Art: An Annual, vol. I, Philadelphia, 1928, p. 92, figs. 8 and 9; and one from the collection of Octave Homberg, and now possibly in the Musée Guimet, Paris, is included in Osvald Siren, op.cit., pl. 13.  See also a seated lion, in the Rietberg Museum, Zurich, illustrated in Chinese Sculptures in the von der Heydt Collection, Zurich, 1959, pl. 31, together with a head of a lion attributed to the Tang dynasty, pl. 53.


42 1/2 by 46 1/2 in., 108 by 118 cm


Gordon B. Washburn, Art News, Vol. 38, 8th June 1940, p. 7 (illustrated).

Magazine of Art, vol. 33, June 1940, p. 376 (illustrated).

Helen Comstock, "A Chinese Stone Chimera," Connoisseur, vol. 106, September 1940, pp. 73-74 (illustrated).

Virginia Ford Menadue, "Statue from Burial Caves: A High Point in Sculpture," Buffalo Courier-Express, 16th November 1941 (illustrated).

Andrew C. Ritchie, Catalogue of the Paintings and Sculpture in the Permanent Collection, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1949, pp. 128-129, 199, no. 61.

American Artist, vol. 13, no. 2, February 1949, p. 36 (illustrated).

Laurence Sickman and Alexander Soper, The Art and Architecture of China, Harmondsworth, 1956, p. 30.

Steven A. Nash, with Katy Kline, Charlotta Kotik and Emese Wood, Albright-Knox Art Gallery: Painting and Sculpture from Antiquity to 1942, Buffalo, 1979, pp. 82-83.


By repute, "Taken from the Tomb of Prince Cao, Dengxian, Yizhou prefecture, Shandong province, (circa 220-265 AD)".

Yamanaka & Co., New York, 1940.

Georgia M.G. Forman (gift of 1940).

Collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, no. 1940:2.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.