Bronze bovine mask

China, Western Zhou dynasty, 1046 – 771 BC

Length: 5 1/8 inches, 13 cm
Height: 4 3/8 inches, 11 cm

A bronze mask depicting a bovine creature, with ‘twisted rope’ borders. The bovine has large round eyes with pierced pupils, a ridged nose, large U-shaped horns and a triangular pierced mouth. The top of the head has a domed cranial extension, which is pierced with a small hole for attachment. The back of the mask has four protruding loops attached. The bronze is mostly covered in a grey-green patina with small areas of malachite and ruby encrustation.

Bronze masks, popular from the early Shang to the mid-Western Zhou dynasties, come in various shapes and have different functions. At least four known functions have been revealed in recent archaeological studies, including adornments on shields; masks attached to the front of a horse’s head; harness plates on chariots; or decorations on ceremonial or ritual tools.[1] Chai illustrates two closely comparable bronze masks, both excavated in Shaanxi province and dated to the Western Zhou dynasty, here identified as adornments on shields.[2]   The present example might have had the same function; the four loops attached to the back would have served to fasten it to a shield. Another bronze bovine mask of comparable style and function was excavated from Beijing in 1986.[3]

Provenance: ex Sze Yuan Tang collection, acquired in Hong Kong 1980s – 1990s; private collection, Asia

  1. Chai, X. M. ‘Lun Shang Zhou shi qi de qing tong mian shi (Discussion on bronze masks of the Shang and Zhou dynasties)’, Kaogu, 1992, vol. 12, pp. 111-21
  2. Chai, X. M. op. cit., pls. 3-1, 3-4, p. 1112
  3. Zhong Guo Qingtongqi Quanji (Complete Volume of Chinese Bronze Objects), vol. 6, Xi Zhou 2, Wen wu chu ban she, Beijing, 1995, pl. 27