Lokapala (Heavenly Guardian)

early 8th century CE
Earthenware with three color (sancai) lead glazes
Overall: 40 7/8 x 16 1/2 x 11 3/4 in. (103.82 x 41.91 x 29.84 cm.)
Arts of Asia
Arts of Asia - China, Level 3
Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., in honor of Ellen and Harry S. Parker III
Image courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

General Description

As Buddhism moved into China from India, Central Asian elements entered the iconography. Among the most dramatic and energetic were guardian figures, as seen in these magnificent examples. In China, these figures combined with protective deities of popular Daoism known as Fang xiang. Through the tradition of burying Fang xiang figures in tombs in the belief they would ward off evil spirits, Buddhist guardians were introduced into the principally Daoist tomb environment.

Shown as ferocious foreign physical types, these guardians wear fanciful armor and fantastic helmets; they once held weapons. Gaining associated power through exotic animal symbolism, the armor decoration often incorporated tigers and lions. Here, heads of mythical creatures decorate the upper armor, and one figure's legs emerge from the mouths of elephants. Their ultimate triumph as guardians is expressed symbolically through trampling a struggling demon or balancing on the figure of a reclining bull.

Mingqi are pottery or wood figures that substituted in the tombs for human or animal sacrifices or represented actual objects from daily life. The practice of interring mingqi with the deceased developed during the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Production reached the height of sophistication and magnificence with the period of these guardians in the first half of the 8th century, when the simple green or brown glazed wares and painted pottery types of earlier centuries evolved into elaborately sculpted figures, naturalistic in detail and dynamically colored.

Termed three-color (sancai), these lead glazes matured at a low temperature and were easily colored with iron, copper, or cobalt to create borwn, green, or blue after firing. White was also commonly used. In the most imposing examples, such as these guardians, color areas were carefully kept separate, emphasizing the brilliance and boldness of the color combinations and proclaiming the status of the deceased.

Excerpt from

  • Anne R. Bromberg, Label text, 2006.