The inclusion of fantastic animal guardians as part of the retinue of tomb figures began in the Northern Wei dynasty (A.D. 386–534) and continued into the Tang dynasty. Also called earth spirits, or zhenmushou (grave-quelling beasts), these guardians took the form of fantastic hybrid creatures composed of various animal and sometimes human elements and were placed in the tomb in pairs to ward off any malevolent beings who threatened to intrude.
The Kimbell’s fierce figure of an earth spirit stands in a rampant posture of conquest as it subdues a snarling beast upon a rockwork base, its left arm entwined with a serpent. The spirit’s triple horns, bulging eyes, and bare-teethed grimace add to its ferocious appearance. Black stripes on the forearms and forelegs terminate in sharply clawed hands and feet, and undulating flames emerge from its head, shoulders, and right leg. A gilded tondo, finely painted with a group of figures (possibly musicians, who may also be foreigners), set against a luxuriant floral panel, embellishes the figure’s chest. The composite elements of the earth spirit, such as the large horns, claws, fangs, and tiger stripes, presumably conferred upon it the fearsome qualities of these animals. The evil that the earth spirit is quelling is in the form of the horned, hoofed beast that he tramples underfoot. The eye on the side of the beast’s belly may represent the “third eye,” an indication of the influence of Esoteric Buddhism prevalent during the early Tang period.
(Eskenazi, Ltd., London);
purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 2001.