As a serious student and active practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) commissioned thousands of ritual implements and sacrificial utensils to furnish the renovated and newly built monasteries and temples as well as the numerous chapels and shrines in the palaces in the Forbidden City, Yuanmingyuan summer palace and the Chengde summer residence. Religious objects formed also part of the presents offered to family and court members. He is known, for example, to have lavished these on his beloved mother, the Empress Dowager Xiaosheng (1691-1771), who was a pious Buddhist. They equally played an essential role in the interchange of gifts to honour religious and diplomatic relations with the Dalai and Panchen Lamas who came to Chengde to pay homage to the Emperor.
All these religious endeavours on the part of the Emperor generated an astounding production activity at the imperial workshops and porcelain kilns, where Tibeto-Mongolian and Chinese artists often worked side by side to design a style that combined Tibetan iconography with Chinese decorative motifs.
The present set of Buddhist Emblems is exemplary of this Sino-Tibetan blend. Its metal prototype, possibly among the many gifts presented to the Emperor by the Tibetan religious leaders, would have been of excellent craftsmanship and quality, compare, for example, a set of gilt-bronze emblems preserved in the Fanhualou (Hall of Buddhist Efflorescence), a private chapel erected by the Qianlong Emperor in 1774 in the Forbidden City, illustrated in Fanhualou cang bao. Gongqi [Treasures from the Hall of Buddhist Efflorescence. Offering implements], Beijing, 2013, pl. 20.
These altar fittings were of great religious value to the Qing rulers, as attested by their depiction in an official court portrait of the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722), kept in the Palace Museum collection in Beijing and illustrated in Qingdai gongting huihua/Court Painting of the Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 1992, pl. 14 (fig. 1). The painting, executed in oil and apparently one of the earliest Chinese oil paintings known, portrays the elderly monarch holding a string of beads, seated in front of such a set of ornaments displayed on a low table.
A complete set of the bajixiang, similar in design to the present lot, can be seen on an altar in front of a statue of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, in the Fanzonglou (Hall of Buddhism), another private chapel in the Forbidden City, see Qing gong Zang chuan fojiao wenwu/Culltural relics of Tibetan Buddhism Collected in the Qing Palace, Beijing, 1992, pl. 99-1, where related sets of altar ornaments in gilt copper and silver gilt are also illustrated, pls 138 and 139.
Very few complete sets of the bajixiang in famille-rose enamels appear to have survived. One similar set, from the collection of the Chengde Imperial Mountain Resort Museum was included in the exhibition Imperial China. The Living Past, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1992, cat. no. 78; together with a related set of the Seven Precious Jewels (qibao), pl. 79.
At auction, only four (including the current lot) complete sets of the Eight Buddhist Emblems decorated in famille-rose enamels were sold, one very similar set, but with iron-red dragons around the base, in these rooms, 29th October 2001, lot 607; three sets at Christie’s Hong Kong, a virtually identical example at the Imperial Sale, 29th April 2002, lot 535; another, with differently modelled and painted supports and of slightly larger size, 28th November 2005, lot 1619; and the current lot, 28th November 2006, lot 1617.
Compare also a somewhat smaller Jiaqing (1796-1820) set of this design from the collection of the Nanjing Museum illustrated in Zhongguo Qingdai guanyao ciqi/The Official Kiln Porcelain of the Chinese Qing Dynasty, Shanghai, 2003, p. 376.
Individual emblems of similar decoration with some minor variations, are more commonly known, compare, for example, two ornaments of the lotus flower and the twin fish illustrated in Gugong Bowuyuan cang gu taoci ciliao xuancui [Selection of ancient ceramic material from the Palace Museum], vol. II, Beijing, 2005, pls 208 and 209; together with a Jiaqing example of the wheel of law, pl. 253. Others have been sold, in these rooms, 29th October 1991, lot 268, the conch shell; 26th October 1993, lot 244, the twin fish, the vase, the canopy and the wheel of law; and 9th October 2012, lot 3110, the wheel of law. Two pairs were sold at Christie’s, in Hong Kong, 27th April 1999, lot 448, the endless knot and the parasol; and in New York, 19th September 2007, lot 414, the lotus and the vase.
Two Daoguang (1821-1850) altar ornaments of the wheel of the law and the vase were included in the exhibition Joined Colors. Decoration and Meaning in Chinese Porcelain, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 1993, cat. no. 49.
Related bajixiang sets were made in a variety of materials, compare, for example, two complete sets in cloisonné enamels, included in the exhibition Qinggong micang. Chengde Bishushanzhuang Zangchuan fojiao wenwu tezhan/Tibetan Buddhist Images and Ritual Objects from the Qing Dynasty Summer Palace at Chengde, The Chang Foundation and the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei, 1999, cat. nos 67 and 68; and another in bronze, sold in our London rooms, 7th November 2012, lot 353.
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