NEW YORK — Two towering men of stone that once stood sentry outside a tomb will now welcome visitors to a display of the kind of treasures, many never before exhibited outside China, that dazzled Marco Polo and other early European traders during the artistically rich Yuan dynasty.
Porcelain, lacquerware, scroll painting, silk tapestries and other art forms flourished during the Yuan, established in 1271 by Khubilai Khan, China's first Mongol ruler and grandson of the great conqueror Genghis Khan.
"The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty," opening Tuesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, explores the diversity of the dynasty through 200 artifacts, most on loan from China and also museums and collections in Asia, Europe and North America.
The exhibition covers the period from Khubilai's birth in 1215 to the fall of the dynasty in 1368, featuring a sumptuous display of artistic achievements in China from when the Mongol Empire stretched from Korea to Eastern Europe.
Among the highlights is a "cloth of gold," the name European traders gave the gold-threaded silk woven by craftsmen brought in by the Mongols from Central Asia and eastern Iran. With its eastern Iranian motif of winged lions and griffins paired with Chinese decorative cloud, it is an extraordinary example of how other cultures influenced Chinese art, exhibition curator James Watt said.
"It's the most famous single material in the Mongol Empire," said Watt of the cloth, used for formal dress, palace furnishings and emperors' tents.
Also on display will be a 7-foot stone post featuring carved dragons on a floral background; it's the only major architectural remnant from Xanadu, present-day Duolun, whose palace was immortalized in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan." The post was a cornerstone of a palatial hall in the city that served as Khubilai's first capital before he moved it to Dadu, now Beijing.
"No one has ever seen it except at the site," Watt said.
Khubilai's reunification of China, for nearly four centuries divided into several independent states, greatly influenced the development of Yuan art, Watt said.
It resulted in "this great amalgamation of ... artistic styles, which then generated a kind of national style and became what we nowadays think of as traditional Chinese art," he said.
The exhibition is arranged into four sections: daily life, painting and calligraphy, religious art, and decorative arts.
The two 11-foot sculptures from the tomb entrance were discovered in Beijing in 1997. One depicts a military official with exaggerated facial features and a military garment so detailed it might have been copied from an actual uniform. The other shows a civilian with softer features and a plain robe.
Everyday life is depicted with garments, shoes and ornaments, drinking vessels for rituals and daily use and ceramics – nearly all from recent archaeological finds in China.
Among them is a bright blue cup and saucer, a luxury item that is the only known piece of Chinese-made glass from the beginning of the 14th century. The set came from a ruling family in Gansu province, an important entry to China via the Silk Road.
A large-brimmed black silk hat with a strap of fiber, wood, gold and semiprecious stones, excavated from a Yuan tomb, is the only known example of the type worn by Mongol emperors. Nearby is a robe with a flared shirt and braided waist, a signature garment worn by Mongol men. Now faded, it would have been dazzling in its day with its gold thread, an inscription notes.
Khubilai, whose mother was Christian, converted to Tibetan Buddhism at the urging of his wife, Chabi. But Daoism, Islam, Hinduism and Nestorian Christianity from Syria and Manichaeism from Persia also were practiced, and the Mongols showed deference for those different religions.
The religion section features gilt bronze sculptures and hanging silk scroll panels of Buddhas in ink, color and gold; porcelain statues of Bodhisattvas; and silk tapestries with religious imagery.
About 40 paintings and calligraphy works represent some of the Yuan's best-known artists. A work by Gong Kai of an emaciated horse – a frequent subject in Chinese art – rendered in ink on paper is one of the most famous of those paintings to survive from the Yuan.
The exhibition also offers a rare opportunity to see works by a towering Yuan painter, Zhao Mengfu, including his "Monk in a Red Robe."