Pictures within Pictures: Reconsidering the Format of Yuan Dynasty Tomb Murals Discovered in Hongyu, Xing County of Shanxi Province

Li Qingquan, Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, China


In recent years, art historians have already started to notice that several murals from Song-Yuan dynasty (960-1368C.E.) tombs often imitate scroll paintings and painted screens. One striking example of this kind is a tomb recently excavated in April 2008 in the Hongyu village, Xing country of Shanxi province. Founded in the second year of the Zhida era (1309), the tomb contains several murals that clearly imitated Chinese scroll paintings. However, this tomb is highly unique because the content of such “painted scrolls” are not common painting subjects suitable for everyday interior decor, such as bird-and-flowers or narrative scenes. Instead, the “painted scrolls” depict painting subjects that are frequently found in tomb murals, such as the portraits of tomb owners, horses, and depictions of busy house servants. In other words, the “painted scrolls” incorporated themes that are suitable for tomb murals during this time. Although this arrangement does create a more poetic atmosphere within the tomb space, I argue that the tomb muralist intentionally selected and exaggerated this format of “pictures within pictures” to uncover new information that we usually chose to neglect in such circumstances. Such new information reminds us that this particular format of “pictures within pictures” was intended for this specific tomb and its specific artistic requirements. What we arrive at is a clearer understanding of how muralists of such a tomb dealt with actual problems in terms of tomb construction.