The Silk Road Composes: A Jewel of Glorious Design
Spanning several thousand kilometers, the Silk Road carved across the European, Asian and African continents a major artery of traffic in commodities, technology, ideas and disease that endured the lifetimes of empires; the death and resurrection of civilisations. This artifact— one of the jewels of the inaugural Timed Auction of 2023— is a product of the collision of cultural and artistic traditions that crossed land and sea to meet at the volatile and embattled interface of the East and West. Among the master craftsmen who contributed new cultural syntheses by collaging and melding divergent motifs, styles and trends in their works was the metalsmith who forged this squirrel and grape-embossed betel leaf envelope.
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The grapes washed up from the West: the bunches that appear on the betel leaf envelope originated in Egypt, then drifted to central Asia. Egyptian artists of antiquity were familiar with the cultivation and consumption of grapes and wine, and their mural depictions of grape harvesting and social wine drinking indicates that the products have been mainstays of Egyptian culture dating back to at least 3000-4000 B.C.
Skimming over several millennia— trade on the Silk Road is now flourishing, and has paved the way for the arrival and propagation of grape cultivation in Ancient China centuries before the rise of the Tang dynasty (618 — 907 A.D.). According to historical records, Western motifs such as grape vines, birds and cherubs have adorned Chinese bronze bowls since the 4th Century A.D. as well as decorative items produced in the Northern Wei dynasty, whose territories were renowned for the production of delectable wines. Nonetheless, the entwining of grape and squirrel motifs— a symbol of prosperity and progeny as bountiful as grape seeds— reached the height of its popularity during the cultural and artistic renaissance of the Ming dynasty (1368 — 1644).
A linguistic lens can provide an account of the prevalence of these two motifs during a period of national resurgence. The Chinese phrase that means the good fortune of having many children and descendants, 松鼠葡萄 (Sōngshǔ pútáo), is a portmanteau of the words for squirrel, 松鼠 (sōngshǔ), and grapes 葡萄 (pútáo). Additionally, the character 萄 (táo) in the word for grapes, 葡萄 (pútáo), is a homonym of the character for peach, 桃(táo), a fruit that symbolizes longevity.
Overrun with squirrels and overgrown with grapes, this silver betel-leaf envelope encodes more than meets the eye: it still whispers to a millennium of clashing and converging cultural streams, a bygone multiculturalism, pressed into the bedrock of the second age of globalization.
Lot 665: A carved and repousse’ silver betel nut leaf holder decorated in relief with squirrel and grapes design (1 pc.)
W 9.5 cm H 13.5 cm weight 50 gram
Circa: 20th Century
Style: Thai, Rattanakosin