Treatment of Marshal Xin of Thunder, a Chinese hanging scroll from the 16th century, is being conducted on view to the public in gallery 178. The painting is currently in poor condition, but in partnership with colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution, the conservation team will clean the image and remount the scroll. Please visit the gallery to engage with conservators as they work, and check back regularly for progress updates posted below.
This monumental portrait once hung on the walls of a Daoist temple in China to protect the local population from pestilence, disease, and other calamities that might be caused by ghosts and demons. According to legend, its subject was once a humble mortal named Xin Xing, who lived a modest life near a mountain ruled by the Thunder deity. While hunting one day, Xin Xing caught five chickens and brought them home to his mother. Unbeknownst to him, the chickens were in fact thunder spirits. As his mother was about to slaughter one of the chickens, it began appealing to her to save its life. Xin’s mother ignored the chicken’s pleas and slayed it. With a clap of thunder, lightning burst from the sky, killing the mother. To avenge his mother’s death, Xin set out to kill the other four chickens. Touched by Xin’s deep filial piety, the Thunder deity transformed him into a thunder guardian, and Xin became one of the three main marshals of the Thunder sect.
Originally, this painting was labeled in Museum records as a portrait of the more well-known demon queller Zhong Kui. However, recent research by curators has revealed the subject’s true identity to be Marshal Xin. Zhong Kui usually carries a sword, while Marshal Xin can be identified by his blue skin and red hair, as well as by the two objects he holds, a scroll and a brush, from which fiery flames spew.
Though not signed by the artist, the top left corner of the painting features the large red seal of the offices of Anyang County, located in today’s Henan Province. Most likely, the portrait was commissioned as part of a large and visually persuasive set of images by the local government to express its concern and desire to safeguard its citizens.
Scroll paintings should be a harmonious balance of multiple elements—the painted image, the textile borders, and a flexible mounting created with handmade papers and wheat starch paste. As can be seen in the above detail of the upper portion of the scroll, the image and its mount are both in poor, unstable condition. In order to achieve harmony of the elements, the entire scroll will be completely dismantled, treated, and then reassembled.
Marshal Xin is painted on silk and mounted in a simple two-colored (liangsebiao, 兩色裱) hanging scroll format. The proportions are slightly different from a typical two-color mount because it is an oversized hanging scroll at more than 12 feet tall. While the painted image will be treated, the two-colored mount is too severely damaged and will be replaced with similar silks. All paper linings that support and hold the painting onto its mount will also be replaced, as will the missing wooden top stave, bottom dowel, and end-knobs.
Treatment of the painted image will involve cleaning; consolidation of the pigments; application of a protective “facing” to the front; removal of old paper linings; filling of losses with an appropriate silk; and applying new paper linings.