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Collection The beginnings of the Silk Road lay in China and in the deserts of Central Asia

For some twenty years now, Silk Road textiles have been a focus both of the Abegg Collection and of the Abegg-Stiftung’s research activities. The finds from excavations in Central Asia and the deserts of northern China – dating from the 4th century BCE to the 3rd century CE – illustrate the extraordinary skill and know-how needed to produce such extravagantly patterned textiles. Most of the patterns are brightly coloured and show beasts both naturalistic and fantastical.

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Vessel for a food offering

Ancestor worship was the predominant cult in China during the Ancient Era. Rulers and nobles went to extraordinary lengths to venerate their forebears. This costly bronze vessel was designed to hold a food offering for the worshipper’s ancestors. It was intended mainly for boiled rice, millet and other kinds of grain. The two handles are shaped like dragons. The body of the vessel shows stylised animal reliefs on a densely engraved ground.
China, early Western Zhou Dynasty, 11th–10th century BCE, cast bronze, h. 14 cm, inv. no. 8.397.01

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Silk with dragons and birds

Silk weaving blossomed in China long before the common era. Many silks had intricate patterns featuring stylised dragons, four-legged beasts and birds or variations of the same. The coloured stripes that greatly add to the dynamism of this particular silk were woven with orangey-red threads dyed with cinnabar. The silk is made of several lengths of cloth sewn together and would originally have been padded and lined for use as a blanket.
China, Warring States Period, 4th–3rd century BCE, silk (warp-faced compound weave), pattern repeat h. 4 cm, inv. no. 5302/5304

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Fragment of a garment

Having survived only in part, the original three-dimensional form of this garment can no longer be reconstructed. The silk is populated by four-footed beasts and birds which inhabit a stylised, paradisiacal landscape of mountains or clouds. The Chinese characters expressing hope and good wishes scattered among the creatures provide a formulaic reinforcement of the visual message of the images.
China, Eastern Han Dynasty, 1st–2nd century, silk (warp-face compound weave), pattern repeat h. 8,5 cm, inv. no. 5301/5303/5336

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Fragment of a skirt

This fragment features a procession of brightly coloured, heavily stylised deer. Every second deer carries a bird on its back – or rather an ambivalent figure which might also be read as a wing with a bird’s head at its tip. Comparable tapestry strips and even whole skirts were found in the tombs of Shanpula on the southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert.
Eastern Central Asia (Xinjiang), 3rd–1st century BCE, wool (tapestry, twill oblique interlacing), h. 51 cm, w. 102.5 cm, inv. no. 5157

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Tapestry strip with horsemen

This archer on horseback accompanied by a bird of prey shown in hot pursuit of a winged chimera with the body of a beast and the bearded head of a man is a most unusual motif. The scene rests on the mythological traditions of Western Asia adapted to Steppe culture. Here, expressive stylisation goes hand in hand with an astonishing realism, evident in the horsemen’s attire, for example.
Eastern Central Asia (Xinjiang), 1st–3rd century, wool (tapestry, twill oblique interlacing), h. 47 cm, w. 92 cm, inv. no. 5138

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Embroidery with ducks

The rows of ducks on this fabric are embroidered onto a tone in tone damask-like ground. Why some of them are turned through 90 degrees is not known. One possible explanation is that the cloth was intended to be cut up into strips to be used either horizontally or vertically. The only other bird, possibly a peacock, is visible on the right selvage, the original edge of the embroidery.
Eastern Central Asia, 7th–8th century, silk embroidery on silk damask, h. 52.5 cm, w. 131.5 cm, inv. no. 4902

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Camel and groom silk

This silk is patterned with lions and elephants at rest and with grooms and their camels. They are labelled with the Chinese ideogram hu, which is generally translated as “Barbarian” but could refer to all the neighbouring peoples to the west. Perhaps the groom is actually a Silk Road trader. Heavily laden camels arriving from the west were synonymous with luxury during the Tang Dynasty. Depicting them on silks was thus a way of rendering the cloth all the more costly.
China, Northern Dynasties or Sui Dynasty, 5th–7th century, silk (warp-faced compound weave), h. 19.5 cm, w. 39 cm, inv. no. 5269 a-c