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the massive bell solidly cast, suspended from a handle finely cast in the round with a pair of intertwined crouching dragons, each ferocious beast powerfully cast with eyes bulging and nostrils flaring, all encircled by lotus petals, the inverted 'U'-shaped body slightly flaring at the bottom, decorated in low relief with a central horizontal frieze of a six-character reign mark in seal script, each character within a quadrilobed cartouche framed by lotus sprigs, all between bands of taotie masks and sinuous dragons chasing 'flaming pearls' among scrolling clouds
The Chenghua Emperor's Gilt-Bronze Bell
Finely cast and lavishly decorated, the present bell represents an era in China's history when stringent quality control meant that only the best and flawless objects were allowed to pass the emperor's close scrutiny and approval. Made during the reign of the Chenghua emperor (r. 1464-1487), this bell is amongst the very few Ming dynasty imperially commissioned temple bells extant to this day with only one other closely related example known, possibly the pair to the present piece, offered at Christie's Hong Kong, 29th- 30th April 2001, lot 597.
A slightly later bell of similar form and decoration, but with an inscription that dates it to the twelfth year of Hongzhi's reign (equivalent to 1499), can be found in the Sumitomo collection, Osaka, illustrated in Sheila Ridell, Dated Chinese Antiquities: 600-1650, Boston, 1979, p. 136, pl. 124. The Hongzhi bell is also cast with a suspension ring in the form of a dragon, encircled by lappets, but with trigrams above the rim and two wide bands of archaistic designs around the body. Similar to the Hongzhi bell is the one, from the Gomersall collection, sold in these rooms, 14th November 1990, lot 420.
Interestingly, the shape of the Chenghua bell continued to be used during the early Qing period, when there was a trend to copy Ming dynasty 'archaistic' bells; see a bronze temple bell with an inscription dating it to 1695 sold in our London rooms, 14th May 2008, lot 670. The design of the suspension ring in the form of a double-headed dragon also continued to be used during the Qing dynasty, most frequently on ritual bells or bianzhong that were assembled in graduated sets of sixteen that provided twelve musical tones with four repeated notes in lower or higher octaves. See a complete set illustrated in Life in the Forbidden City of Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2007, p. 50, pl. 50; and another gilt-bronze bianzhong dated to 1743, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27th May 2008, lot 1540.
While the six-character seal script Chenghua mark confirms that the bell is of the period, the dragons seen on the lower band are typically 'Chenghua' in style and are comparable to that found on Chenghua blue-and-white wares. For example, see a dish decorated with a band of five dragons amidst stylized clouds around the exterior included in the Special Exhibition of Ch'eng-Hua Porcelain Ware, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2003, cat. no. 13, together with a bowl painted with four dragons among clouds, cat. no. 14.
The magnificent size and lavish decoration of the present bell suggests that it was probably housed in one of the important temples during Chenghua's reign. While it is difficult to name its precise location, a number of important temples come to mind, such as the Imperially sponsored Dajue temple located in the Haidian disctrict of the capital Beijing. Chenghua's mother, Empress Xiaosu, was especially fond of this temple and worshipped there on a regular basis. As Chenghua himself was particularly close to his mother and treated her with extreme filial piety, it is likely that he would have commissioned the making of elaborate bells of this type for temples like Dajuesi.
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