Ming Altar Table

16th/17th Century
Northern Elm (Yumu)
Shanxi
31” h. 55” w. 14” d.

This recessed-leg table is of traditional, classic style. The top is made of one solid plank, with low everted flanges capping the ends. The wood on this plank has a very distinctive tangential deep grain pattern unusual to be found in northern elm. This textured-look gives character to the table. The legs as well as the side stretchers are round. The spandrels are very simply designed. These are characteristics favored by Ming literati, who were influenced by Confucius philosophy to live simply and to reduce artifice to a minimum in order to make the most of the material used. Dignity, simplicity of structure, and balance was the ideal of the day. Too much carving and elaborate decoration were considered vulgar. It is not surprising that most museums tend to collect Ming furniture displaying this ideal. Except for the wood, a Ming altar table styled almost exactly like this one was once exhibited in the Denver Art Museum.

Another characteristic of Ming furniture is the appearance of hand-hammered bosshead nails. They served more as a decoration than for connecting joints. Early tables were done in the mortise-and-tenon method. This kind of nails appeared in furniture as far back as Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) but seldom after early Qing. By mid-Qing, more elaborate carvings and decorations were desired. So, these hand-hammered nails came to indicate the age of an item.

Today, any Ming antique is valuable as China doesn’t allow aged relics to leave the country any more. This is a collector’s item.