Fifteen terra-cotta figures

New Acquisitions: 2017

The faces that seem to gaze back at us represent ordinary people who lived in Indonesia a few centuries ago. Most of these remarkable clay images preserve the idiosyncrasies of women and men in the Majapahit kingdom (circa 1293–early sixteenth century), centered in East Java. Powerful and prosperous from international trade, the Majapahit kingdom brought forth a rich material culture on all levels of society.

Most Majapahit terra-cotta heads, including the ones presented here, are found detached from their bodies, which seem to survive only rarely. The sole “complete” figure in this group is assembled from a head and body [S2017.8.13] that did not originally belong together. In size and pose, the body bears a remarkable resemblance to glazed stoneware figures made in the sixteenth century at the Ban Pa Yang kilns near Si Satchanalai in Thailand [S2005.292]. These, too, are almost always found in “decapitated” condition, believed to be a result of ritual use. Such similarities may suggest some transference of influence across cultures. Certainly, ceramics exported from the capitol and port city of Ayutthaya made their way to Java.

Two of the fifteen Majapahit heads differ significantly. One represents the Hindu deity Kala [S2017.8.15] and may have been part of a small terra-cotta model of a temple. The other is a small animal head [S2017.8.14], possibly a Malayan sun bear (helarctos malayanus). Besides human figures, architectural miniatures, and animal figures, Majapahit potters used earthenware to make vessels, floor tiles, pipes, roof tiles, and finials.

These figures are a gift from Dr. Mattiebelle Gittinger, a renowned scholar of Indonesian textiles and the author of such publications as Splendid Symbols: Textiles and Traditions in Indonesia (1985). She is also a long-term research associate for Southeast Asia at the Textile Museum in Washington, DC. Gittinger bought the terra-cottas in the early 1960s, when she and her husband Price lived in Java and traveled through the eastern areas. “I bought them from a shop, and some of the heads came on wooden mounts,” she recalls. “If there had been whole figures, I would have purchased them.”

Most collections of Majapahit terra-cottas are in Indonesia and the Netherlands. The Gittinger terra-cottas thus represent a significant addition to the Sackler’s Southeast Asian collection, comprising a meaningful group of objects of a type underrepresented in American collections. Recent exhibitions and catalogues indicate a growing interest in the Majapahit kingdom and the terra-cottas in particular.

In the Freer|Sackler collections, the Majapahit terra-cotta heads complement a group of Thai terra-cotta and stucco heads and figures of similar date and scale from the Dr. Sarah Bekker and Hauge family collections. Majapahit’s trade-based culture is also represented in the Freer Study Collection by a group of Vietnamese ceramic tiles made expressly for Majapahit according to Islamic architectural specifications [FSC-P-425-434, 438].

Indonesia, East Java, Majapahit kingdom, 14th–15th century
Terra-cotta (earthenware)
3–15 cm
Gift of Price and Mattiebelle Gittinger
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery S2017.8.1–15