This complex openwork plaque features two entwined dragon-like creatures being attacked by serpents. They are also in combat with a composite creature that has the body of a serpent and the head of a ram. The chaotic subject-matter is skillfully brought together to create an intricate work of art that nevertheless exudes symmetrical harmony and a sense of controlled balance. All the creatures in this composition are decorated with simple stippling and raised dots and comma-shaped motifs, which derive from patterns found on northern Chinese bronzes cast in the states of Jun and Qin, which occupied Shanxi and Shaanxi respectively. At one edge of the plaque are the remains of a hook that was part of the fastening system. On the reverse, there is a button with which this plaque would have been originally attached to the belt.
The theme of animals in combat, often contorted and abstracted, is a popular one among the artistic repertoire of the nomadic peoples of the steppes, as is the juxtaposition of naturalistic and fantastical imagery, as here. The interplay of hybrid creatures, with real and imagined beasts elevates the composition, transporting it from the realm of mundane reality to an other-worldly plane, and perhaps suggests an association with religious or magical beliefs. The plaque is overtly Chinese in character, and this type of animal predation scene was favoured in particular in the iconography of the pastoral communities on dynastic China’s northwestern frontiers. Originally, it would have formed part of a pair of mirror-image plaques that together constituted one complete buckle, which would have further enhanced the impression of symmetry.
A buckle such as this would have been worn as part of a grand visual display in which both horse and rider were richly ornamented in bronze, gold, and silver objects. This must have had an important psychological impact, intended to impress and intimidate allies and adversaries alike. Complex compositions that were harder to produce, such as this, may have been more expensive to commission and so became indirect statements concerning the owner’s wealth and status.
Plaques of the same shape and similar style have been discovered on the Qingyang plateau in southeastern Gansu, including one in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. (inv. no. S87.0448, fourth century BC), which depicts a wolf and serpents in combat, also with granulated bands giving texture to the surface. A belt buckle featuring similar raised dots and spirals, with entwined dragons, found in the Guyuan area of Ningxia, is also relevant, but lacks the compositional complexity of the present example (see below publications for illustrations).
E.C. Bunker, T.S. Kawami, K.M Linduff, and W. En, Ancient Bronzes of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections (New York, 1997), p. 243, no. 199 and p. 244, no. 200.
Luo Feng and Han Kongle, ‘Ningxia Guyuan jinnian faxian de beifangxi qingtongqi’ in Kaogu 5 (1990), p. 413, fig. 12:5.
Private Collection, Canada, 1980s.
With AG, 1990.
Published: T. Pang, Treasures of the Eurasian Steppes: Animal Art from 800 BC to 200 AD, New York, 1998, p. 167, no. 187.