Legendary Terracotta Army comes to VMFA

Despite being a short lived dynasty, the Qin empire (221 B.C.- 206 B,C.) produced over 10,000 individually tailored terracotta figures. Photo by Ali Jones.

“Terracotta Army: Legacy of the First Emperor of China” opened to the public on Nov. 18 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, featuring ten life-size terracotta figures from 210-209 B.C. and more than 130 works of art.

The exhibition was curated by Li Jian, the VMFA E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Curator of East Asian Art, and the Curator of Asian Art at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Hou-mei Sung. Once the exhibition closes at the VMFA on March 11, 2018, it will travel to the Cincinnati museum.

Many of the featured objects were excavated from the mausoleum complex of the First Emperor of the Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who founded the dynasty in 221 B.C.E who died shortly before the dynasty’s collapse in 206 B.C.E. Though short lived, the empire was the first successful attempt to unify large portions o of what is now modern day China.

“The Terracotta Army is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. In our 80-year history, Terracotta Army will be the first exhibition organized by VMFA that is devoted to the art and archaeology of ancient China,” said VMFA Director Alex Nyerges.

The exhibition’s three parts are separated loosely by the physical gallery space with the terracotta figures, consisting of warriors and a cavalry horse, located at the end. Each figure represents a specific individual who was important to the First Emperor of the Qin Empire. An estimated 8,000 of these figures were created, including warriors, officials and servants, and buried in three pits a mile away from the emperor’s burial site. The figures’ statuses are denoted by a variety of visual elements, but their differing poses are most noticeable.

Information on the creation of the figures is also presented. Originally, the pieces were painted with vibrant colors, but only traces remain after millennia of interment.

Many of the excavated pieces featured in the exhibition relate to an essential aspect of Qin civilization: horses. Items like a 6th century B.C.E. gold, bronze and silver chain that was placed around a horse’s neck convey the importance of the animal. Other pieces include a snaffle bit, adornments which were placed on bridles, a chariot and chariot bells.

“Our exhibition is organized to bring our audience a better understanding of Qin history, and ancient Chinese art and archaeology,” Li Jian said.

The middle section of the exhibition includes a myriad of pieces yielding from everyday life in the Qin culture, such as jewelry and objects of adornment, in addition to showing the influence of nomadic people. Objects from Qin “commoners” illustrate the differences in lifestyle between classes.

“I believe this exhibition will provide a great opportunity for American audiences to understand the daily life of Qin people and the visual culture of the empire more than 2,000 years ago,” said Dr. Zhao Rong, Director of the Shaanxi Provincial Cultural Relics Bureau. This exhibition actively promotes cultural exchange between China and the United States, and increases understanding and friendship between peoples of both nations,” Several exhibitions of this nature have been exchanged between China and the U.S. in recent years, one of them being the VMFA Fabergé collection which was on view in the Palace Museum in Beijing in 2016.

The exhibition is free for children ages six years old and under, VMFA members and active-duty military personnel and their immediate families. The cost of admission is $10 for students with a college ID, $20 for adults and $16 for seniors 65 and up.


Georgia Geen, Staff Writer

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