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Ritual vessel in the form of a water buffalo (14th – 11th century BCE)

For Artwork in Focus we explore individual artworks, critiquing their style and discussing their socio-political context. Today we look at Ritual vessel in the form of a water buffalo.

About the Work

Title : Ritual vessel in the form of a water buffalo
Medium : Cast bronze with olive-green patina
Dimensions : H. 16.7 x W. 21.7 x D. 9.9 cm (6 9/16 x 8 9/16 x 3 7/8 in.)
Location : Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts

According to the digital catalogue for the Harvard Art Museums :

“Although there are no contemporaneous records explaining the meaning of the decorations on Shang bronzes, the preponderance of zoomorphic motifs and the emergence of animal-shaped vessels made of bronze or jade are clear indications of the importance of animals in the repertoire of Shang artisans.”

The motif of the water buffalo is an important one in Chinese history and mythology. According to legend, sage Laozi left China on a water buffalo. The animal is symbolic of strength, stability, prosperity and gratitude. It is likely for these reasons that it was common for artists and craftsmen to adopt this particular symbol into their creative work.

Other Details

Ritual vessel in the form of a water buffalo is housed in the Harvard Art Museums in Room 1740. It is part of the museum’s collection of Arts of Ancient China from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. This piece has been at the Fogg Art Museum since 1919.


To learn more about iconic artworks and their socio-political context, visit Artwork in Focus.

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