Silver gilt funerary mask

China, Liao dynasty, 10th ­ 11th century

Length: 8 1⁄4  inches, 21 cm
Width: 8 1⁄4  inches, 21 cm

A silver funerary mask representing a human face, worked in the repoussé technique with strong, naturalistically portrayed features and a demure expression. The heavy­-lidded eyes are depicted shut and set below pronounced, arched eyebrows that are engraved with finely hatched  lines. The face has high cheekbones and a straight, broad nose set above a full­-lipped mouth.  Two prominent ears jut out at either side of the head. The earlobes are pierced. The mask is covered in a green patina, leaving relatively large areas showing the original silver finish of the metal.


Placing  a  metal  mask  on the face  of  the deceased was a  unique, probable  originally tribal, burial  custom during  the Liao  dynasty  in China. The  Liao  dynasty  was founded  by  a semi­-nomadic  tribe  of  hunters  and pastoral people named Qidan (Khitan). The material used for a funerary mask was determined by the hierarchy of the wearer; copper was used for those of lower ranking, whilst higher ranking officials were allowed to use a more precious metal such as silver and silver­-gilt. Gold was reserved for members of the imperial family.[1] A unique gold funerary mask with silver netting still attached, belonging to the Princess of Chen, is now in the Research Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Inner Mongolia.[2] A comparable gilt-­copper mask is in the Meiyintang Collection.[3]  A further comparable silver-gilt mask is in the Muwen Tang Collection.[4]

Collection of Prof. Michael Besser, London

  1. She, Hsueh­man ed. Gilded Splendor­Treasures of China’s Liao Empire (907­-1125), Asia Society New York, 2006, p. 100
  2. She, Hsueh­man  ed., op. cit., no. 6, pp. 108­9
  3. Krahl,  R. Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, Vol. One, Azimuth Editions, London, 1994, fig. 31, p. 107
  4. Kwan, S. Chinese Silver, The Muwen Tang Collection Series, Vol. 2, Hong  Kong, no. 64, pp. 144­5