THE IMPERIAL GOLD EWER
Elaborately decorated ritual vessels made of the purest quality gold give the message of extraordinary opulence and luxury only affordable by a small number of the most powerful and wealthiest rulers in the world. The present ewer, made with solid gold body, is inlaid with precious stones and cloisonné and is inset with framed and raised panels showing scenes of flowers, figures and landscapes in painted enamel. It is a masterpiece that impressively illustrates the extraordinary affluence enjoyed by the Qianlong emperor (1736-1795) of the Qing dynasty. It faithfully reflects his extravagant and lavish lifestyle and his fondness for ornamentation and show.
The rarity of this piece is unquestionable. Firstly, unlike most cloisonné pieces which are made of gilt-bronze, every component of this vessel, including the nails holding the base to the body, are made of solid gold. Secondly, only two other closely related examples are recorded, one in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in numerous publications including Enamel Ware in the Ming and Ch'ing Dynasties, Taipei, 1999, pl. 35 (fig. 1), and the other, from the Pierre Uldry Collection, published in Helmut Brinker and Albert Lutz, Chinesisches Cloisonne die Sammlung Pierre Uldry, Zurich, 1985, pl. 291. Both the present and the Uldry ewer have painted enamel decoration that is sumptuously enhanced by raised gold wire details that outline some of the rocks, mountains and interiors of the rooms. Raised gold wire decoration of this type is extremely rare although the same technique was used and can be seen on a double-gourd form gold bodied cloisonné ewer, also from Qianlong's collection and now in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in Zhongguo meishu fenrui quanji, vol. 6, Shijiazhuang, 2002, pl. 176 (fig. 2). A related pair of gold-bodied cloisonné enamel ewers together with its basin, inset with decorated enamelled panels, but without the raised wire details, in the Museum of Château Fontainebleau, formerly in the collection of Princess Eugénie (fig.3).
The nine variously shaped plaques of painted enamel decoration found on this vessel display the characteristic painting style and pastel colours used in the Enamel Workshop belonging to the Zaobanchu (Imperial Palace Workshop) located in the Forbidden City. The Enamel Workshop was in charge of producing cloisonné, champleve and painted enamel wares on metal, porcelain and glass for the use of the Emperor and members of the Imperial household. Enamelling on metal was first introduced by Jesuit missionary artists working for the Kangxi Emperor. By the Qianlong period the Enamel Workshop was producing wares of delicately painted design and outstandingly fine workmanship. The panels found on this ewer depict Chinese landscapes and seasonal flower scenes that include roses, peonies, hibiscus and chrysanthemums well known from contemporary painted album leaves. The figure scenes are interesting because they are based on Western genre scenes of ladies and children introduced by the Jesuit painters working at the court. The religious theme of 'mother and child', especially popular with the Qianlong emperor, may have been introduced to the Chinese artists repertoire by the French Jesuit artist Jean-Denis Attiret (1702-1768) whose work, in turn, was influenced by the rococo taste of France in the reign of Louis XV and artists such as Boucher, Fragonard and Lancret. However, to satisfy Chinese taste and to remove any possible Western religious connotation, the design of 'European mother and child' was changed to 'Chinese mother and child' a subject matter that was immediately acceptable to all.
The use of the most precious materials combined with the intricate and painstaking execution of the cloisonné work and painted enamels for the making of a vessel of this rather mundane form is also intriguing. Doumuhu, which in Tibetan means 'bucket for butter', were used in Tibet for storing butter and for making the traditional buttered tea for Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies. They were originally made of wood with metal bands. The three horizontal bands decorated with chased floral scrolls inlaid with jewels on the present ewer echo the metal bands that usually held the wooden butter container together. For examples of doumuhu made in different mediums see a faux-bois copy included in the exhibition China. The Three Emperors, the Royal Academy, London, 2006, cat.no. 55; and a gilded-copper ewer, from the Tibet Museum, included in the exhibition Treasures from Snow Mountains. Gems of Tibetan Cultural Relics, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2001, cat.no. 105. A gold cloisonné ewer of this shape but without the enamelled panels, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Metal-bodied Enamel Ware, Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 108 (fig. 4).
Transforming a humble wooden ritual utensil into a splendid imperial ceremonial vessel was a deliberate act on the part of the Qianlong emperor to express his utmost devotion and political commitment to the patronage of Tibetan Buddhism. The Qianlong emperor was a genuine practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and a keen supporter of the influential Gelugpa Order. However, he was also an astute politician who saw the political necessity to appease the Dalai and Panchen Lamas of Tibet who were revered by the Mongol population which historically posed a threat to the Manchu nation. The emperor's extravagance in spending on Tibetan religious institutions and ceremonies is well documented. He also commissioned a large number of Buddhist temples to be built in the capital and invited monks from Tibet and Mongolia to act as abbots in these temples. Imperial ritual implements, sculptures and vessels were made in the Palace Workshops for use in the temples and to be given as gifts to the Tibetan monks and nobility who considered gold especially auspicious. Palace records show that in the 57th year of the Qianlong reign (equivalent to 1792 A.D.) two gold urns (bum-pa) were made in the Palace Workshop for use in the 're-incarnation' ceremony by the Gelugpa sect. One was preserved in one of the most important Lamaist temples, the Yonghe Lamasery in Beijing, and the other was sent to Tibet. The latter gold urn was included in the Shanghai Museum exhibition op.cit., cat.no. 4. For further examples of Qianlong period Buddhist ritual vessels made in the Palace Workshops, see a magnificent cloisonné butter-tea jar, in the National Palace Museum included Enamel Ware in the Ming and Ch'ing Dynasties, op.cit., pl. 36, also decorated with painted enamel panels depicting flower sprays and ladies with children; a pear-shaped cloisonné ewer in the Palace Museum published in Zhongguo meishu fenrui quanji, op.cit., pl. 177; and a gold 'Bottle of Longevity', a ritual vessel used in the abhiseka Tibetan Buddhist ceremony, also included in the Shanghai Museum exhibition op. cit., cat.no. 72.
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