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.). It does not have an impressed reign mark as noted in the publication: “Chinese Cloisonné: The Pierre Uldry Collection”, large sumptuously decorated religious vessels were mostly commissioned to serve as ceremonial furnishing in temples or chapels, and not for celebrating a monarch’s reign. This is that type of religious vessel, and it is attributed to the 2nd half of the 18th century because of its style, motifs, enamel colors, use and technical workmanship. Ormulu (ground gold, alloy resembling gold), a French rococo style, was already the rave of Europe. It came into being in China during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. This emperor loved art and innovation. He invited Europeans to come to his court to help advance in technology and designs in metalwork. The Chinese artisans were encouraged to try out innovations while keeping to the traditional. This ceremonial vessel is a result of the innovation.
The vessel has a turquoise-blue color in matte finish. The color resembles the famous “Jing-tai Lan” blue of the Jing-tai era. The bell shape lid is topped by a tall quadrangle knop with a trapezoid top. This knop is decorated with dense floral scrolls, with a “shou” character in the middle and a gilded floral frieze at the hem line. A recessed round gilded base connects the knop to the bell-shape lid.
This lid is magnificently decorated. It has the same trailing-floral ground as the knop, but has in its midst a lotus motif at the bulged upper part as well as at the curved-in base of the lid. In between the lotus design, embellished on the swelled-out main part of the lid is a striking beaded “taohuan” lobed panel pierced with a host of gilded bats surrounding a red enameled “shou” character. The lotus, “shou”, and the bats evoke hope for a long life, happiness, and good fortune. The lower rim of the lid has a meander-cloud design, symbol of wish for abundance from heaven. On either side of the trailing-vine ground is a linked angular design in black and gold, meaning “everlasting”. A row of gilded notched flanges march down each side of the burner. These flanges gleam golden in sunlight. This fanciful decoration is the essence of Ormulu design.
The burner has a mouth formed by a band decorated with lotus motifs. Below this mouth, the body swells out and then tapers down to the base, with the underside supported by four colorful gilded bats as legs. A pair of same-designed bats are soldered onto the burner as handles. Scrolling floral vines cover the surface of the burner and is adorned by four many-petaled lotus flowers design at each corner. This flower motif, complex in form, with a central petal of ogee-arch shape at the top, is typical of the design of this Qing period. Another telltale sign is a colloidal pink appearing on some flowers. This pink was not introduced into China until the first quarter of the 18th century. On the body of the vase is an arresting design of a bat holding in its mourth a beaded string carrying a “shou” medallion from which dangles two patches with three tassels. This tassel design invokes the crowning decoration on some high official’s hat, making it credible this ceremonial vessel was either commissioned or given to a person of high status, to be placed in the chapel of his estate to pray for longevity and good fortune.
Like quality cloisonné of this period, this vessel has a solid heavy bronze body; the wires delineating the contours of the designs are fine, accurately bent and gilded. The artisans, while emulating traditional ritual bronze of Zhou Dynasty, took artistic freedom afforded them by the emperor to create something that captured the spirit of Ormulu and created a ritual burner that exudes an air of grandeur. Ormulu (ground gold) earns its name here when the gilded notched flanges marching down the sides of this burner glow like gold when sunlight hits on them. This a majestic-looking piece. Technically and design-wise, this vessel is on par with the best cloisonné any age has to offer.