Thanksgiving was implemented as a national holiday dedicated to appreciation, prayer and reverence for the past by none other than President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during a time of war. The idea of important dishes and vessels for food and drink that are used only for special occasions dedicated to respecting rituals of tradition is an obvious subject for thoughts around Thanksgiving.

Yet the tradition-steeped ritual cooking and serving vessels in an exhibit at Bowdoin College Museum of Art were made of bronze about 3,000 years ago in what is now Hunan, China.

Throughout China, rituals dedicated to the appreciation of spirits and ancestors were fundamental to maintaining balance in the world. According to Confucius, violating the systems of ritual was tantamount to insulting the “Son of Heaven,” which could result in punishment by military force.

Strangely, insofar as sacrifice, warfare, honor and tradition were fundamental affairs of state, many of the ideas of at the core of “Along the Yangzi River: Regional Culture of the Bronze Age from Hunan” relate directly to Lincoln’s reasons for instituting the ritual-filled national-healing holiday of Thanksgiving.

The Hunan bronze exhibition is an extraordinary show. But it is also a very accessible show and fun for the entire family. My young sons enjoyed the “treasure hunt” for kids, playing with the replica bronze bell chimes and looking for the “monster faces” in most of the bronzes.

With the Colby Museum in Waterville down to 25 percent of its usual size during a renovation that will last over a year, it is interesting to see what Bowdoin will do. While I would love to see far more contemporary exhibitions there, it is undeniable that Bowdoin is great for ancient art.

To enter the show, you have to walk past Bowdoin’s famous Assyrian stone reliefs from Ashurnasirpal II’s palace in Kalhu. The reliefs are giant and terrifying, and look so ancient as to be otherworldly. And, having been made in 880 B.C.E., they are younger contemporaries to most of the Chinese bronzes. As far as context goes, it’s perfect.

The bronzes are interesting both for their being strong examples of ancient Chinese ritual objects and, maybe to a select audience, for being among the most important and unusual of their kind.

The elephant-shaped “zun” vessel (a flask for wine offerings) is widely celebrated and published in books about art history and Chinese culture. It’s the kind of thing anyone could like: Children, amateurs, sculpture fans and experts alike. But however fascinating it is historically, it’s a fantastically cool elephant decked out to the nines.

On the other side of the spectrum is the exceptional rectangular “ding” with a human face on it. It is famous because it is completely unique.

A “ding” is an offertory cooking vessel for wheat. Like most of the other bronze vessels, weapons and bells in the show, a “ding” would be used in rituals based around presenting spirits and ancestors with a feast. The ceremonial performances were exacting and highly regulated as a matter of state.

While these rituals were not for the common people, they were part of the daily lives of the aristocrats. There were even regulated numbers of vessels, objects and offerings that had to be used by persons occupying different stations of the aristocracy.

But while these objects are anthropologically fascinating as sophisticated historical antiquities, they are no less interesting as sculptural objects. The designs are gorgeous and intricate. As examples of piece-mold casting (as opposed to the lost-wax technique), they are exquisite. The imagery of monster masks and animals are entertaining and fun. And the mysteries behind many of them — particularly the bells and the ritual ax heads — are infinitely intriguing.

My favorite piece happens to be one of the exceptions. It is a “ding” with a monster-face design. To see the monster or animal faces, you generally look for the two dots that serve as eyes and let the faces make sense to you from there. Finding these is great fun for kids of all ages.

This particular piece is a large, rounded pot (large enough for a turkey) with big handles for ears and an unusual organic feel that makes it seem as if it could waddle off on its three sturdy legs.

Another piece that held my imagination is a “hu” wine flask with a serpentine handle made of two long dragons. The faces on the front include a monster mask over a striking water buffalo face. As well, the casting seams — or flanges — appear as three cartoonish birds just under each handle hinge.

I don’t recall ever seeing a show in Maine with this historical depth, and I have seen few exhibitions of antiquities that are so fun or satisfying.

Because of their intricate and intense detailing, the 60 collected works are far more than anyone could take in during a single visit.

But just to see the collection and maybe look at a couple in detail makes for a great museum experience.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.