Large Lidded Ormolu Cloisonné Ceremonial Vessel

Second Half of 18th Century
19½” h. 14¾” w. 9½”d.

This exceptional incense burner is of the “fanghu” type of ceremonial vessels, the forerunners of which are the ritual bronzes of the Zhou dynasty (481 – 222 B.C.). Even though this vessel doesn’t carry any incised period mark, the workmanship and designs of this incense burner are datable to the 2nd half of the 18th Century, when the Ormolu style came into being in China, fostered by the Emperor Qianlong, who invited foreigners to come to his court to help advance in technology, workmanship, and designs in metalwork. Ormolu, a French decorative rococo style, was already the rave or Europe. The Chinese artisans were encouraged to try out new innovations while still keeping to the traditional. This ceremonial vessel is a good example of their new achievement. The artisans, while emulating many traditional ritual bronze of the Zhou dynasty, took artistic freedom afforded them by the Emperor to create something of splendor to capture the spirit of Ormolu; in doing so, they created a burner that has a traditional look but also exudes an air of grandeur. The fine workmanship also gives it a sense of delicate elegance.
The vessel has a substantial tiered lid topped by a tall nine panels finial, each panel decorated with the lotus and “shou” (long life) character. This finial sits on two wasisted bands of gilded stylized lotus petals, giving the finial the appearance of another ceremonial vessel resting on a gilded stand. On the lower tier of the lid, showing on each of the curved side panels is openwork carving of a host of gilded bats surrounding a red enameled “Shou” character. Gilded notched flanges march all the way from the lid down to the main body.
The lid rests on a band of cobalt blue angular pattern that makes up the rim of the body. Below the band is a neck decorated with scrolling lotus designs. The neck rests on a frieze of gilded stylized lotus petals below which the body protrude into shoulders that arch out and taper down to be supported as feet by four colorful bats (auspicious symbols of happiness and good fortune). Two handles in the form of bats are fastened below the rim of the mouth and rise steeply and tilted sharply outward.
Like quality cloisonné of this period, this vessel has a solid heavy bronze body; the wires delineation the contours of the design are fine, accurately bent and gilded. Most of the surface of the vessel is decorated with traditional scrolling lotus flowers and stems against a turquoise blue background. Here and there are geometric diapers. A telltale sign of the period is a colloidal pink appearing on some flowers. This is a truer pink than the Ming pink, which was a mixture of red and white granules. The colloidal pink is obtained from colloidal gold, which was not introduced from Europe into China until the first quarter of the 18th century. This pink is said to be a good indicator in the dating of a piece of cloisonné. A matte finish also speaks of an early period.
A quite arresting decoration on the four sides of the protruding body is a bat holding in its mouth a beaded string carrying a “shou” medallion from which dangles two patches with three tassels. The abundance of the bats and the “shou” character signifies this vessel was given to someone of high status to wish him a long life and plenty of happiness and good fortune. The technical quality of this vessel shown is on par with the best any age has to offer, and a great tribute to the receiver.