Steatite cylindrical vessel and cover

Steatite cylindrical vessel and cover

China, Tang dynasty, 618 – 906

Height: 4 7/8 inches, 12.5 cm

Width: 3 3/4 inches, 9.5 cm

A cylindrical vessel with cover, supported on three short, bowed feet. The vessel is carved from a single block of steatite. The straight sides are engraved neatly with seven horizontal grooves. The slightly domed cover is carved with two circular grooves and topped with a bud-shaped finial. The greyish green material is flecked all over with black inclusions and is polished on the outside of the box only.


Steatite – or snakestone as it is sometimes referred to, due to the black flecks in the material – is a relatively soft mineral stone that is easy to carve, which enabled Tang craftsmen to use a lathe to hollow out the stone to make comparatively large vessels. The shape of this vessel, known in China as lian, had existed during the bronze age and might have been used as cosmetic container. [1] The interaction between metal and ceramic forms and those made in other materials is a recurrent theme in the history of Chinese art, and evident in this finely made steatite vessel, the pure, elegant form of which also occurs in Tang dynasty ceramics. A Tang dynasty pottery vessel with cover in the shape of a bronze lian, covered overall in a green glaze and of comparable size, shape and design, is in the collection of the Idemitsu Museum of Art. [2] Other comparable green-glazed lian vessels without lids are in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum [3] and in the Alan and Simone Hartman collection. [4]   Three Tang pieces made of steatite, all dated to the 7th to 8th century, are in the Meiyintang collection: two are turned steatite tripod vessels with covers (fig. 1), one is a steatite figure of a reclining hare. [5]

  1. Such as a bronze lian excavated from a tomb dated to the Warring States period and now in the collection of the National Museum of China:
  2. Idemitsu Bijutsukan ed. Chūgoku tōji: Idemitsu Bijutsukan zōhin zuroku, Hatsubai Heibonsha, Idemitsu, 1989, no. 37, p. 285
  3. Victoria and Albert Museum online collection archive, museum number: C.86-1950
  4. Medley, M. An exhibition of Tang Sancai pottery selected from the collection of Alan and Simone Hartman, 1989, no. 31, pp. 56-7
  5. Krahl, R. Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, Vol. Three (II), Paradou Writing, London, 2006, no. figs. 14 & 15, p. 323
Fig 1. Turned steatite tripod vessel and cover, Meiyintang collection
Fig 1. Turned steatite tripod vessel and cover, Meiyintang collection