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Footsteps From a Vanished World

The MFA's collection includes fine examples of European and American paintings, Asian art, and ancient Egyptian artifacts. Following this five-part series, the Monitor will interview curators at London's Tate Gallery.

I only ever saw one other pair of boots like this one," Wu Tung says.

As Matsutaro Shoriki Curator of Asiatic Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Mr. Wu carried through the acquisition of this rare early 11th-century artifact of the Liao Dynasty. It was added to the MFA's collection in June 1995.

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Although the pair of boots Wu saw years earlier in North China were, he admits, "more elaborate than ours," nevertheless, "our pair is unique in the United States."

Whereas the pair in China was found about 20 years ago in a royal tomb together with headgear and mask, the MFA's were in a collection in Japan. "They had been acquired in China during World War II," Wu says. "The Japanese have traditionally been avid collectors of Chinese artifacts.

"I think someone of the nobility or aristocracy would have been buried in these costly boots. They are made in silver for two purposes: for lasting longer; and because silver, or gold, are precious metals and carry social status."

In spite of the fact that they are size 8-1/2 ("rather large"), Wu identifies them as women's boots. "The decorations on them are of the phoenix. In Chinese art, the phoenix motif is just the opposite of the dragon motif. The dragon is usually identified with the male - king or emperor - whereas the phoenix is always associated with Her Majesty - queen or empress."

He points out how "very well designed" the "shape and contour of the boots are. The stitchings that normally occur on a pair of leather boots are repeated on these silver ones." The craftsmen "actually went to the trouble of making a rather realistic imitation: Silver wire went through the holes - quite extraordinary."

Wu first saw them at a London dealer's. "They were dirty. They had not been given a good boot-shining! They looked dull on the surface. Actually, they looked like lead.

"But as soon as I lifted them - their weight gave away the fact that they were not lead. However, only after our laboratory did a thorough analysis did we realize that the silver they are made of is of a purity of more than 90 percent. The hammering is remarkable; they are not heavy or thick.

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"We are afraid to polish them; we don't want them to look as if they were just made yesterday. What we have done is highlight the gilt phoenix and ruyi-shaped clouds - 'auspicious' clouds - so they stand out quite well against the dull silver background." As to the silver background, Wu says: "I think it's better to leave the patina there."

Wu describes the cultural background of such a pair of boots: "They were made under the Liao Dynasty, which was established in Northeast China by nomads who called themselves 'Khitans.' The Khitan tribe was related to the Mongolians, the Northern steppe people who themselves at different times conquered either part, or the whole, of China."

Following "a long southward push" by various nomadic tribes, beginning with the Huns in the 2nd century BC, the Khitans ruled Northern China from AD 916 to 1119.

TO Wu, the importance of the boots "is that they teach a modern public about a lost kingdom, the lost culture, and art of a once very powerful people. The Khitans were conquerors on horseback, and they had many unique features.

"We have in the museum four sections of a 12th- century painting that depicts the daily life of the Khitan people." Although the subject of this painting is in fact a narrative dating back to the 1st century and shows a romance in the time of the Huns, "the 12th-century Chinese knew nothing about the Huns. What they knew best were the Khitans. Therefore, they painted the Khitan people - their hairstyle, their dress, their lifestyle - into a painting that actually referred to the 1st-century Huns." Wu sees this painting as offering a vital context in which to appreciate the boots.

"The museum has other Khitan things - it is arguably the strongest presentation of Khitan culture in the US. We have a horse saddle, a gilt silver crown, and a Buddhist sculpture - we also have ceramics."

With their ceramics the Khitans did something similar to the silver boots in bringing together Chinese and Khitan characteristics. "They learned how to make ceramics from the Chinese, yet they shaped them exactly like their own leather water-flasks. They engraved onto the surface of such ceramics the features of the leather water containers." The museum owns a pair of such ceramic flasks.

A visitor to the museum might compare the nearby Chinese artifacts, to see the similarities as well as the differences, Wu suggests. "They will see how the makers of the boots adopted Chinese motifs - the phoenix, the clouds. But they are different from Chinese works in that they are nomadic shapes for horse-riding.

"Khitan art was halfway between their own culture and that of the Chinese."

* Part three of a five-part series. Other parts ran Feb. 10 and 24. The MFA's Khitan treasures will be prominently displayed in a forthcoming exhibition: 'Tales from the Land of Dragons' (April 13-July 20) in the Gund Gallery.

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