Rare and Unusual Bronze and Cloisonné Censer

17th / 18th Century
22” h. 8½” w. d.

This censer is judged to be from about the first half of the 17th Century to no later than the second half of the 18th Century, based on colors, construction characteristics and designs. In the beginning of the Ming dynasty, the color palette was relatively simple, mainly primary colors and not a lot of mixed colors like pink, green, yellow and aubergine. Turquoise blue has always been chosen as a background color to set off the other colors. The colors, therefore, are very important for dating cloisonné.

The production of cloisonné was a very labor-intensive process and involved many changes to make it more efficient. These constant changes make the dating of objects relatively accurate. The base of a cloisonné was made from a copper alloy. From the beginning of the 16th Century, many objects were made of cast bronze (a mixture of copper and tin). The bronze contained a lot of gas which escaped out of the metal when it was heated in the furnace, causing little bubbles and pits, damaging the look of the enamel. Early cloisonné was really all made of copper.

Another characteristic of very old cloisonné was that the wires, narrow strips of sheet bronze, were made to the desired thickness by hammering. If the cooling between work phases was insufficient during the hammering, the metal hardens and becomes brittle, causing the wires to split. The split wires often show remains of various colored enamels from adjacent cells, giving the enamel surface a smudged look, seen e.g. on the present censer. Also, early wires were soldered onto the body until the 18th century when flue was found to be more efficient and was used exclusively. Soldering or gluing the also indicates age.

This censer is constructed with four elephants standing on a bronze pedestal with enamel decoration. The elephants carry on their back a structure like a pagoda with scooped roof decorated on the top side with enameled lotus flowers and on the bottom with stylized clouds. The roof supports a bronze finial structured like a lotus flower seed, ending with a brilliant round green glass or semiprecious stone. The corner of the square roof is decorated with the head of a fowl stretching out giving the impression of a bird in flight among clouds.

The elephant is a sacred Buddhist symbol. The four elephants together symbolize the pillar of life, holding up the firmament with baby elephants, symbolizing re-creation. Other symbols shown are the Wheel of The Law on the pierced metal body below the baby elephants, the lancet-shaped leaf of the Artemisia, an ancient medicinal herm for divination. The Ruyi for granting wishes, the turquoise Sea of Bliss and cobalt blue Mountain of Longevity (Seat of the Gods) on the straight-sided base.