A very rare black moonstone figure of a kneeling elephant

明十五/十六世紀   黑月光石跪象

The elephant is shown kneeling with the stocky legs tucked underneath the body, with small incised circles to indicate the toenails. The head is slightly raised and turned to the right, with smallish ears. The tusks meet at the front of the trunk which falls beside the right front leg and curls up at the end. By means of a simple breast and crupper strap a saddle-like support is secured to its back, over a long, tasselled blanket carved on each side with a taiji tu (or “Yin-yang” symbol). The stone has a matt black appearance overall apart from on the right rear leg and bottom of the blanket at the front, and the left side of the neck and the fore flank on the reverse, where it appears a suffused pale yellowish colour. 

Provenance:
From the Collection of Timothy and Fran Lewis of Melplash Court, Netherbury, Dorset
Duke’s, 22nd September 2010, lot 1022

Exhibited:
Priestley & Ferraro, 'Symbol and Support.  The Elephant's Role in Chinese Art', November 2018, cat. no. 10


This finely carved figure is highly unusual in being a Daoist representation of an elephant. The saddle blanket carved on both sides with that most iconic of Daoist symbols, the taiji tu (太極圖, “Diagram of the Great Ultimate”) is sufficient testimony to this, but in addition it appears that the stone has been enhanced by means of a process known as laotiyou (老體油, “old fresh oil”) to its rich black colour, emphasizing its difference from the more familiar White Elephant of Buddhist tradition.

For a detailed description of the evolution of the taiji tu, showing that it did not arrive in its present form before the beginning of the Ming dynasty, and probably not that early, see François Louis, “The Genesis of an Icon: the “Taiji” Diagram’s Early History”. The stylization of the elephant itself, with its small domed crown and rather planar sides to the face, meeting in a ridge above the slender trunk, is typical of the first half of the Ming dynasty and is seen on contemporary bronze figures of elephants.

The stone is a black moonstone composed of orthoclase feldspar.

Dimensions: Length: 11 cm, 4 ⅜ inches

Date: Ming dynasty (1368-1644), 15th or 16th century

Stock No. 1687

Price: On Request