A Rare Vestige of Imperial Ming China at Bonhams

Fine Chinese Art
17 May 2018
London, New Bond Street

Bonhams is privileged to offer a monumental Imperial exceptionally rare cast gilt-bronze ritual butter lamp, early Ming dynasty, circa first half 15th century. The vessel is cast with the Imperial reign mark of the Jingtai Emperor (r.1449-1457). It weighs 335 kg, measuring an impressive 102.6cm high x 102cm diameter. The estimate is available on request. The important ritual vessel will be sold at Bonhams New Bond St, London on 17 May 2018.

It is a unique example and no other similar vessel of such proportions and bearing the Imperial Jingtai reign mark would appear to have survived.

Butter lamps, also known as 'The Dharma Light', are an essential element in the offering practices of Tibetan Buddhism, and represents the offering of light to enlightened beings. The lamp would have been prominently displayed beside a temple altar, and kept burning as a perpetual flame, fed by offerings of yak butter or oil from the faithful and carefully tended to by the monks. The light emanating from the lamp would have illuminated the dimly lit temple, and a colossal lamp such as the present one would have contained enough butter to burn for many days, emphasising the potency of the blessings bestowed by the Emperor and upon the Emperor.

Emperors during the early Ming dynasty, notably from the late 14th century to circa mid-15th century, lavishly patronised Tibetan Buddhism as both a means of legitimising their rule as well as extending their power and sphere of influence to Tibet. A ritual vessel of such magnificence would have been very costly to produce and made by Imperial order by the Imperial Workshops. It would have been gifted by the Emperor to an important monastery, temple or as a diplomatic gift to a high ranking Tibetan hierarch. In its ritual-purpose form and bearing the Imperial reign mark of the Jingtai Emperor, it encapsulates the reciprocal relationship during the first half of the 15th century between the Imperial Court in Nanjing and Beijing and the leading Tibetan sects and leaders.

Works of art dating to the Jingtai reign period are very rare not only because of the relatively short period (1449-1457), but possibly due to the turbulent circumstances of this reign. The Jingtai Emperor replaced his brother, the Zhengtong Emperor, on the throne when the latter was captured by the Oyrat Mongols following the defeat in the Battle of the Tumu Fort in 1449. However, when the Zhengtong Emperor was released in 1450 he was granted the title of Emperor Emeritus and placed under house arrest for nearly seven years until the imminent death of the Jingtai Emperor. When the latter was deposed, a new reign began under the name of Tianshun. The political conditions during the Jingtai reign would have therefore emphasised the importance of receipt of religious support and positive omens from Tibetan hierarchs underscoring the Mandate to Rule from Heaven.

The exceptional ritual vessel has provenance going back to circa 1960s-1970s, when it was with the renowned firm Spink & Son, Ltd., London. It has been published in several publications and exhibited in the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam.

The special catalogue includes essays by the leading scholars Professor Luo Wenhua, Researcher at the Palace Museum, Beijing, as well as Dr Michael Henss.


Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest and most renowned auctioneers, offering fine art and antiques, motor cars and jewellery. The main salerooms are in London, New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, with auctions also held in Knightsbridge, Edinburgh, Paris, San Francisco and Sydney. With a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 22 countries, Bonhams offers advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full list of forthcoming auctions, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments, please visit

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