Altar Table with Heavenly Stallions Motif

About 15th/16th Century. Ming Dynasty
Sophora (Huai) or Chinese Locust, Cypress and miscellaneous wood
Shanxi
36” h x 51” w x 17” d

The basic frame work of this table is attributed to Sophora or Locust, the drawers and carved panels to Cypress, and the side panels to miscellaneous wood. Sophora/Locust and Cypress all are characterized by relatively straight grains and somewhat uneven texture, as shown on this table.

Sophora, or more known to the Chinese as Huai, is a tree grown mainly in northern China. It grows only an inch a year. Due to this slow growth, the wood is very dense and strong, and since it is highly resistant to moisture and incect damage, it was the wood of choice for furniture construction during the Yuan (1279-1368) and especially during the Ming (1368-1644) periods. Its slow growth and frequent use, however, caused the demise of this wood as a building material after the Ming dynasty. So, furniture made of this wood is usually attributed to that early era.

The top of this table is made of a single plank and has everted ends on which can be seen decorative bosshead nails which are also found on the frame of the drawer fronts. These decorative nails are quite characteristic on furniture made in the Yuan and Ming periods.

The two drawer front panels have deep carvings of the mythical Heavenly Stallions galloping across waves and through clouds. The three panels below have openwork carvings of floral and flourishing leafage motifs. These motifs have a distinctive provincial flavor reflecting the culture of the northern nomadic minorities which populated China during the Yuan dynasty and influence artwork during the early Ming period. These nomads were used to things in nature like flowers and grass, birds and small animals and often used them as motifs. They also have a special relationship with their horses as they roam the land for grass and water to nourish their herds, or at war. Heavenly Stallions, however, are rarely seen as a decorative motif on furniture, though it is said to have appeared as early as Song dynasty on architectural techniques. Thus, this Ming altar table, with this rare design, is a great find.

The drawer fronts retain original hasp plates that can secure the drawers by attaching the hasps to rings on the frame member below the drawers. The locks are missing. The front legs of this table are molded and are tenoned through to the table top. The front spandrels have carvings of flourishing leafage motif and are original. The back legs and small spandrels here are plain. The lower part of the back legs have been replaced due to severe rotting from sitting on mud floors in central government warehouses during the Cultural Revolution. The wood was dried out and grayish-looking when the piece was found. After cleaning, a light coat of natural lacquer that is the sap from the Lacquer Tree growing in China was applied to restore the color and to preserve the wood. It still shows a patina that antique collecters treasure. This altar table is surely a rare find even in China today.