15 3/4 x 21 7/8 x 18 inches
Museum purchase with funds provided by the Alice Pratt Brown Museum FundArts of Asia
During the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BC), vessels called ding were used to hold meat during ritual feasts and royal banquets. This particular ding is covered with an elaborate and stylized interweaving dragon motif.
Toward the end of the Shang dynasty (c. 16th–10th century BC) and beginning of the Zhou, the animal patterns frequently found on Shang bronzes began to give way to designs that were more abstract. Though the body of this ding was fashioned according to the Zhou style, the finely cast zoomorphic masks that adorn each of the vessel’s three legs allude to a traditional decorative motif called taotie that was found on earlier Shang bronzes and may have symbolized ancestral spirits. The three finials on top allowed the lid to serve as a dish when removed and inverted.
Bestowed to recognize meritorious achievement, imperial favor, appointment to office, the settlement of a contract, or the taking of an oath, a set of bronzes usually contained an odd number of ding. According to historical texts, the emperor would use nine dings in sacrifices; feudal lords would use seven; high-ranking officials would use five; and minor nobles would use three.