Fletcher Coleman . Fragments and Traces: Reconstituting Offering Procession of the Empress as Donor with Her Court
In 1941, the monumental Northern Wei dynasty (386–534) relief sculpture Offering Procession of the Empress as Donor with Her Court (‘the Empress Procession’) went on display in its newly restored state at the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (part of what is now The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) to much fanfare. Originally from the east wall of the Binyang Central Cave at the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang in Henan province, the grey limestone relief procession was already widely recognized as a canonical example of Chinese figural sculpture by the time of the opening (Fig. 1). The relief became nearly as famous for its journey to the Nelson—from its in situ destruction to the ‘rescue’ of the original fragments and their subsequent reconstitution in America by Laurence Sickman (1907–88), the first curator of oriental art at the Nelson Gallery. A broader narrative emerged over the course of the 20th century concerning the acquisition of the Empress Procession relative to its companion relief, Emperor Xiaowen and His Court (Fig. 2; ‘the Emperor Procession’), later collected by The Metropolitan Museum of Art under then-curator Alan Priest (1898–1969). My recent discovery of a major body of unprocessed materials at Harvard University, as well as unexplored letters and photographs at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, has led to breakthroughs in this narrative. These materials provide crucial new written and photographic evidence concerning the destruction of the relief, its restoration, and the display of the fragments once they arrived in the US.