Terrible Beauty: The Dragon in Ancient and Tribal Art

The dragon motif has appeared in the art of many cultures for thousands of years. Expressions of this mythical creature can be seen in early Chinese art dating to almost 7,000 years ago. The dragon also appears in places as diverse as Ireland, Italy and island Southeast Asia. Wherever it occurs, it makes a powerful statement, often held up as a symbol of power and status.

Curated below are art works displaying the dragon image. The materials worked include jade, metal, fabric and even the beaks of ‘sacred’ birds like the hornbill. In quite a few art objects, the dragon is shown in a coiled form – these include some of the world’s oldest art objects. Other works exploit the imagined sinuous body of the dragon to great aesthetic effect.

CHINA

C-shaped dragon, China, Late Neolithic Period, Hongshan culture (4500 to 3000 BCE), Jade. National Museum of China, Beijing.

Large quantities of carved jades were unearthed from tombs of the Hongshan culture in China,  a neolithic site dating back to between 4700 and 2500 BC. Most of the jades in Hongshan sites were in the form of stylized animals, among them the earliest appearance of the dragon in a coiled C-shaped form. The above piece is an undisputed masterpiece and is the earliest known depiction of a dragon in Chinese art.

A Roman openwork harness mount, Bronze, 1st – 3rd century CE. This bronze military horse harness mount, known in Latin as phalera is cast in a circular shape, with a central openwork panel showing an agile dragon.


Pendant of a double ring feline dragon, China, Warring States Period, 475-221 BCE, Jade, Diameter: 2.75 cm.


Two-side disc-ring (“bi”) with incised scroll pattern and relief dragon, China, Han dynasty, 206 BCE – 220 CE, Jade, Diameter: 2 in.


Knotted dragon pendant, China, Han dynasty, 3rd century BCE, Jade.


Dish with white dragon, Yuan dynasty, China, c. 1320-50. Diam: 15.7 cm. Sir Percival David Collection, British Museum, UK.


Ring, Ming dynasty, 17th century, nephrite, diameter: 16.5 cm. Yale University Art Gallery.

The shape of this ring, in the form of a dragon with the face touching the tail, can be traced to the coiled ‘pig-dragon’ motif that first appeared in the Neolithic China and continued to be produced until the Western Zhou dynasty.

SOUTH AMERICA

Looped serpent (oeuroboros), Maya civilization (2600 BC to 800 AD), Mesoamerica Xochicalco, sandstone.

Originating in ancient Egypt, the ouroboros is a dragon-serpent creature that appeared in many other cultures, including the Mayas in Mexico and north-central America where it represented the concept of eternity and the unity of time’s beginning and end. The Maya civilization began as early as 2600 BC, and reached its height between 250 and 900 AD.

THE WEST

A Roman openwork harness mount, Bronze, 1st – 3rd century CE. This bronze military horse harness mount, known in Latin as phalera is cast in a circular shape, with a central openwork panel showing an agile dragon.


Celtic coin with dragon motif, Germany and Bohemia, late 2nd to 1st century BCE.

The most spectacular and enigmatic of Celtic coinage, the gold ‘rolltier’ staters emerge among the Celtic tribes in the area of southern Germany and Bohemia about 2,000 years ago.


Openwork belt fitting, France, ca. 7th century.

Openwork plaques were hung from a belt by a strap. objects as combs, keys, or amulets would be suspended from the plaque by chains or strings. The patterns on these belt fittings ranged from architectural motifs to human and mythical figures such as the current piece which appears to show a dragon or serpent-like creature.


Replica of a Viking dragon pendant, Sweden, 10th century, Bronze.

Norse mythology is a complex tapestry of myths and stories involving gods, goddesses, giants, dwarves, and humankind. Of all the mythical beasts in Norse mythology, dragons may have been the most feared yet revered. To the Vikings, dragons were powerful creatures that were the embodiment of chaos and destruction, which is why dragon figures adorned the long ships of Viking raiders that terrorized coastlines of Northern Europe.

SOUTH EAST ASIA

Centuries of seaborne exchange between China and Southeast Asia have led to the dissemination of China’s vibrant culture to Indochina and island Southeast Asia. The dragon imagery was particularly enamored by the tribal peoples of the Indonesian archipelago and this has manifested in a profusion of artistic creations bearing the dragon motif, suitably adapted by the local culture. Below are some examples.

Pair of hornbill earrings, Kayan/Kenyah Dayaks, Borneo, Indonesia. 19th -early 20th century. H: 4.3 cm. Personal collection.

The dragon is a preeminent creature of the underworld among the Dayak people of Borneo and is represented in objects worked in various materials. This pair of ear ornaments is carved from the orange-red casques or beaks of a hornbill, a large forest bird revered by many Indonesian tribal cultures. Each piece is carved in the form of a coiled dragon known to the locals as aso, a symbol of female fertility. In the past, only successful headhunters could wear such prestige ornaments.


A brass version of the above earring, Dayak people, Borneo, Indonesia. 19th century. H: 3.8 cm. Personal collection.


The handle of an bamboo arrow quiver featuring a sinuous dragon that resembles the dragon depicted in ancient Chinese art. Dayak people, Borneo, wood, 15 cm, 19th century.


Architectural Element with Dragon Motif, Kenyah Dayak, Wood, L: 157 cm (Aso: 51 cm); W: 21 cm
First quarter 20th century

The Dayaks live in longhouses, which are large communal dwellings comprising up to 50 rooms. As the most important dwelling structure, longhouses are typically decorated with images of spirits carved in relief or sometimes in the round, like this aso (‘dragon’) finial.  Measuring 157 cm in length, this gorgeous aso would have adorned the lintel of a chief’s abode. This superbly carved aso is the work of a master artist. The animal has a graceful, sinuous body and an imposing head turned to its back, the overall form recalling the dragons images of early Chinese bronzes (see comparison below).

Left: anlarged image of the dragon architectural element from Borneo. Right: dragon handle on a bronze ritual wine vessel from China that dates to the early Zhou period in the 5th century BC. Literature: Jessica Rawson, Chinese Bronzes (Trustees of the British Museum, 1987). Liu Yang, Cast in Eternity: Ancient Chinese Bronzes from the Shanghai Museum (Yale University Press, 2014).

 

Warrior’s jacket, Dayak people (Kenyah tribe), Borneo, early 20th century, bark, beads.

Bark cloth called tapa was made by many ancient civilizations before the time of woven textiles. In Southeast Asia, some tribes continued to make bark cloth into the 20th century using the bark of mulberry trees as in this warrior jacket which features two dragons (aso) embroidered onto it in a scrolling pattern, creating the visual effect of lively undulating movement.


Head ornament in the form of a coiled serpent-dragon (Sanggori), Toraja people, Sulawesi, Brass/copper alloy, Indonesia. 19th – early 20th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

There is a common traditional among the tribal peoples of Indonesia to imagine the serpent and dragon, or a hybrid of both, as a rule of the “underworld”, responsible for the creation of the universe. This elegant brass head ornament is worn by the Toraja people who inhabit the southern interior of the large island of Sulawesi.


The Moluccas islands (Maluku in Indonesian) in the easternmost region of Indonesia are the fabled spice islands that were colonized first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. These remote islands are also famed for their beautiful art works such as ancestor figures and canoe prows. Remote these islands may be, but the influence of Chinese art can still be seen in the few rare objects that are preserved in museums such as this large ‘four-legged dragon’ that is obviously the work of a highly imaginative artist.

Mythical creature in the form of a four-legged ‘dragon’, Maluku, Indonesia. National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta.

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