On the western wall of the Met Museum’s Sackler Gallery for Chinese art, you can see an intricate limestone relief that measures about 12 feet across. Titled Emperor Xiaowen and His Court, this artwork dates back to China’s Northern Wei dynasty (386-534). Along with a companion piece showing an empress and her attendants (at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City), they were originally located in China’s Longmen Grottoes, near Luoyang, Henan province.
The figures in the frieze are garbed in flowing robes with broad sleeves; their outfits differ according to rank. The folding lines in the fabric evoke the Han dynasty style of painting, which focused on lines. It was a perfect blend of indigenous Chinese art and the recently arrived Buddhist art.
According to Liu Jinglong, former director at the Longmen Antiquities Research Center, the life-size figures in the two friezes realistically depicted the features, costumes and the rituals of the emperor, empress and their entourage. They hold tremendous historical significance in terms of art, religion and culture.
After Emperor Xiaowen relocated his capital from Datong to Luoyang in 495, Luoyang became the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Work at the Longmen grottoes began around that period. To this date, over 2,100 grottoes remain at this complex on the western bank of the Yishui River, with over 100,000 sculptures and over 3,600 calligraphy steles. The quantity of its artifacts ranks Longmen at the top of China’s famed grottoes. The processions of the emperor and empress were commissioned by Emperor Xuanwu, the son of Xiaowen. They were located in the Central Binyang Cave, one of the oldest grottoes in the complex.
The first foreign explorer to visit Longmen was the Japanese scholar Kakuza Okakura. Okakura “discovered” the site in 1893. The photographs he took introduced Longmen to the world outside of China. In the ensuing two decades, explorers from America and Europe came to research and catalog Longmen’s rich trove. When American historian and East Asian art expert Langdon Warner (said to be the prototype upon whom Steven Spielberg based Indiana Jones) saw the two processional reliefs showing Empress Wenzhao and Emperor Xiaowen, he described them to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. “You can see what classical Chinese sculpture was in its prime. Look at the procession of figures – it is as well composed as the Parthenon frieze, and for line I have never seen it beaten… Sensei [Okakura] considers it very important that this mine of top notch Chinese sculpture should become accessible to the West – it is an unopened Parthenon or rather the whole Acropolis of Athens waiting to be studied.”
Following the overthrow of the Qing court in 1911, China fell into a state of civil strife. Authorities were not able to prevent the looting of artifacts across the vast landscape. Warner was concerned that these scholarly researches might inadvertently serve as an order catalog for unscrupulous collectors of Chinese art. He was unfortunately proven right.
A Shameful Passage to America
As Warner had compared the emperor and empress’ processions to the Elgin Marbles, the way they came to America was equally as controversial. According to Liu Jinglong, Chinese authorities discovered a contract for the removal of the friezes in the 1950s, in the shop of Beijing art merchant Xue Bin. Dated 1934, it was an agreement between Xue and American Alan Priest, who was procuring art on behalf of the Met Museum, to pay 14,000 silver dollars, in three installments, for the art works.
How did they manage to remove the frieze from the grotto? Liu recalled some interviews with local stone masons his department conducted back in 1965.
These stone masons admitted to have been forced by local bandits to chip away at the friezes between 1930 and 1935. Apparently Xue had contracted these bandits to take the artworks by force. To avoid discovery by local villagers, the stone works did the work under the cover of darkness. They cut out the friezes in pieces, to be carried away before daylight. Bandits stood guard outside the cave to warn them with signals, should anybody approach unwittingly.
The pieces were reassembled in Xue’s house in Beijing, using photographs as reference. However, the reassembled artwork was incomplete. What we see in the Met Museum today is only 70-80% of the original work.
In 1953, Chinese government performed an inventory of the customs warehouses in Qingdao and Shanghai, and discovered scattered remnants of the procession friezes that Xue did not use in the reassembly. The pieces discovered in Qingdao were repatriated to Longmen for safe keeping.