Liao Dynasty Coffin Panels

The collection of the Princeton University Art Museum includes a group of six rare Liao dynasty (907–1125) wooden panels, which likely formed the outer walls of a coffin box that housed the inner container for the body. The nested coffins would have been placed on a platform inside a tomb chamber. Vividly painted, the panels depict preparations for a feast at which the deceased will be the honored guest, as well as images related to the journey to the afterlife.

The Liao dynasty was ruled by the seminomadic Khitans, whose homeland included parts of present-day northern China and Mongolia. After conquering territory to their south formerly ruled by the Tang dynasty (618–907), the Liao elite adopted a range of Chinese cultural practices, including the construction of richly decorated underground tombs and the use of elegant Chinese ceramics and metalware. Liao military successes against the Song dynasty (960–1279) resulted in a peace treaty that established diplomatic parity between the two empires.

Coffin Box Panel: Preparing for an Outdoor Banquet, 10th–early 11th century, Liao dynasty, 907–1125, Chinese. Wood with lacquer-based pigment. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund. 1995-90.

This panel and its mate Coffin-Box Panel: Arranging an Outdoor Banquet present preparations for an outdoor feast. The table, held aloft by two servants, is laid with an array of drinking vessels, examples of which are featured in this room. To the right, two young men carrying large containers, presumably full of wine, highlight the drinking theme. On the left, another servant looks back as he directs the proceedings. The figure’s dynamic posture and expressive gestures reflect the vivid characterization achieved by Liao painting workshops. Both feast preparation panels convey the nomadic roots of Khitan banquet practices: a rustic open-air meal for a small gathering of guests, featuring an assortment of dishes and plentiful libations.

Coffin Box Panel: Attendants Bearing Offerings, 10th–early 11th century, Liao dynasty, 907–1125, Chinese. Wood with lacquer-based pigment. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund. 1995-87

Partnered with the panel Coffin Box Panel: Gentlemen Attendants, these four ladies would have formed a procession honoring the deceased. Each of the women holds a bowl on a stand, containing ritual offerings likely destined for the feast being readied in Preparing for an Outdoor Banquet. An elegant lady in a flowing gown, possibly the wife of the first figure in the panel of male attendants, leads the group. She is presented in the fashion of the Tang dynasty (618–907); the other women sport Khitan dress and hairstyles. The short gown and tall boots of the fourth woman match clothing typically worn by Khitan males. In Khitan culture, women often had occasion to don male attire, which was more suitable for horseback riding.

Other Liao Dynasty Coffin Panels

In an open landscape against a backdrop of gently rolling hills, four servants arrange a table for a feast. Both the size of the table and the remote location suggest a small, intimate gathering. The dining ware, an assortment of individual vessels rather than matched sets, suggests that the tomb occupant for whom the occasion is being organized was a member of the local elite rather than a high-ranking aristocrat. This panel is typical of Liao funerary art in depicting feast preparations rather than the meal itself. Liao tombs sometimes included offerings of food for the deceased; perhaps there was no need to illustrate a meal that was meant to take place in the tomb.

This panel mirrors Coffin Box Panel: Attendants Bearing Offerings, which depicts a group of similarly posed ladies. These panels would have formed part of the long sides of the coffin box, either positioned adjacent to each other or with each paired to one of the feast preparation panels. The gentleman at the front of the procession, presented in formal Chinese dress, is presumably the son of the deceased and the sponsor of the tomb. The remaining men, dressed and coiffed in Khitan fashion, may represent other family members or servants. The first two figures clasp their hands in a distinctive gesture, likely a sign of homage toward the tomb occupant.

This panel and Coffin Box Panel: Four Figures Flanking a Doorway likely formed the shorter ends of a rectangular coffin box. The position of the panels at the ends of the box, near the deceased’s head and feet, influenced their visual programs, which concern the transition from life to death. Riderless horses and grooms are a frequent subject in tomb art, presumably symbolizing the tomb occupant’s journey to the afterlife. This splendid horse points to the Khitans’ success in breeding fine steeds as well as their tradition of mounted combat, which offered a decisive military advantage over the infantry of Chinese-held territories to their south.

This panel likely formed one of the ends of the coffin box. Doorways frequently appear in tomb art from the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) onward, symbolizing the deceased’s departure from the realm of the living. The elegantly drawn cranes and magpies ascending above the portal may also allude to the soul’s journey into the afterlife. The respectful male figures standing by the doorway are dressed in Khitan fashion, as are the seated boys, who are accompanied by a pair of attentive dogs. All of the Liao panels shown here feature well-groomed canines, underscoring the importance of trained dogs in Khitan culture.