Description of a large hexagonal Chinese cloisonné vessel decorated outside and inside from Buddhist temple

Decoration with Lohans, Chinese cloisonné made for Tibet (Buddhism)

Height: 49 cm
Diameter: 70 cm
Weight: 20 kg
Enamel thickness: 1,5 to 5,5 mm

Technical data:

Body and rims: copper, fire gilt

Wires: bronze, in 2 thicknesses, regular, machine made, no split and not soldered to each other.

Mounts: On the top inside the vessel is a riveted and fire gilt bronze sheet. Engraved and with on each of the 6  sides a finely elaborate hammered vajra surrounded by 2 conch shells each, riveted on the sheet.

The cast bronze molded and chiseled foot rim, with water plants and flowers is fire gilt.

The secondary bottom, of fire gilt bronze sheet is hammered in negative repoussé with a cross thunderbolt (vijra-vajra) in the center, surrounded by light flashes and clouds.

Marks: No. The great majority of old cloisonné enamels is not marked with a reign mark and from those who are marked, a great part is not made during the engraved reign mark.

Use: Large vessels like this one are often called “fish bowls”, but this isn’t one. Very probably, the vessel has been ordered and made for ritual use in a major Buddhist temple for collecting gifts. This is told by the decoration on the vessel: the beggar with his tray on the front panel and the other Lohans coming to him from both sides.

Condition: The original fire gilding can be seen on the secondary bottom of the vessel. The inside panels with flowers and leaves have been less often cleaned from dirt and wax than the bottom inside and the outside of the vessel. Because of more frequent there, rims and wires have lost a part of their gilding.

Because of the robustness, this vessel is very well conserved and I still in a good condition. Less than 0.5% of the cells have lost a part of the enamel.

There is an opening in the center of the cross thunderbolt on the bottom of the vessel. This allows to see the backside of the cloisonné enamel bottom inside and which is covered with a dark aubergine counter enamel.

Scrollwork: The sky of the landscape inside the vessel is execute in hanging fish scale pattern and outside in standing fish scale.

Colors: Apart from 9 pure enamel colors, there are a lot of mixed colors. They are often so finely mixed that one need a magnifier to be sure. The rose from the rosary is not a pure rose from the 1730’s and later but a fine blend or red and white. The beige skin is a blend of white and yellow.

Lapis blue, turquoise blue, turquoise green, dark grey, white, yellow, red, black, aubergine, mixed rose, mixed skin beige, mixed aubergine + white, mixed dark green + yellow, mixed lapis + white, mixed red + green, mixed yellow + red, mixed turquoise + white, mixed black + green, mixed green + red + yellow.



The top rim is cloisonné enamel on the horizontal top side and outside a zig-zag pattern, used since the 15th century but not so frequently.

Under this zigzag border and blow each of the 6 panels there Is a curl border. The 6 panels are separated by a large rim although the flowering trees and branches continue from 1 panel to another.

Together on the 6 panels there are 16 Lohans, who were guardians and protectors of the Buddhism and who had a supernatural power. They were considered as apostles, holy and wise. They had all extra big heads, large or long eyebrows. They were bold and some had a short beard. They had wrinkles allover the body, had long nails and ears, with large earrings and had wristlets and were wearing slippers.
This naturalistic style and somewhat exaggerated expression of portraying the Lohans goes back to the 9th century A.D. 5Kuan-Hsiu).


Description of some of the panels

Front panel:

The only one to be considered as the front panel is the one on which we see a sitting Lohan as a beggar, holding in his left hand a small tray for collecting gifts. He is the only one without earrings as a beggar. Only by the special position of his right hand and his left foot, he is able o find hes equilibrium in his uncomfortable but most naturalistic position.
In front of him, there is a pagoda rising uo from the center of a lotus flower(purity and perfection symbol). With on top of it 3 flaming pearls, symbol of the heart of the Buddha and of purity. Flying in the air are 2 phoenixes, emperors of all birds with the feathers in 5 colors;

On the stem of each bottom panel we recognize a stylized half chrysanthemum, the symbol of generosity. In the middle, the panel surrounded by a small curl border.7

On the 5th panel, at the right side of the rear one, there are 9 Lohans with very large eyebrows under a cloudy sky, playing with a peacefull yellow tiger. One Lohan, probably Po Lo To Che is caressing the hand of the riger with his right hand. Meanwhile holding additional food in his left hand, thus showing the power over wild animals.
The tiger is the lord of all land animals, this king of the wild beasts, the emblem of dignity and a representation of the god of wealth.
The other one, a white skin Lohan on the background is holding his both arms above the tiger.

On the 6th panel, left from the front panel, we find 4 other Lohans under a flowering tree, 3 of them on their way to the beggar and the pagoda. The one who is reading from a scroll is very probably Pan T’o Ka. He has no hair, no beard, no large eyebrows and he has a normal head. He is the only one without extra long nails and probably does not belong to the group of old Lohans. He is not going to the beggar but looking to the spectator and is probably reading the story of what is decorated on the vessels. He was the greatest of Buddha’s disciples.
The Lohan worshipping with his rosary is probably Tan Mo Lo Po’to, a cousin of the Buddha and one of his right hand. The sound of it is believed to disperse the evil spirits. It is also a symbol of respect, obedience and veneration. The Lohan nearest to the front panel is worshipping intensively with his eyes closed and his fingers crossed.

Inside the vessel, on the bottom, there is a 2 horned dragon moving between the water and the clouds. It is a 5-clawed Chinese Imperial dragon. Sometimes, the 5th claw is hidden behind the body. Around the dragon there are clouds, flames, lotus flowers and blossoms.
The dragon is the emblem of imperial power and is the chief of all aquatic creatures.

On the 6 panels inside the vessel, we find 4 JU’I scepter heads under the bronze vajra-border. On this continuous landscape below, we find flowers in a different color, with and without seedpods. (white, yellow, red, red + white). The green leaves are large and beautifully curled. Thanks to the leaves we can be sure that the flowers are lotus and not peonies. Peonies are more ball-shaped and have round metal ends. Lotus flowers have more everted petals and sharper ends.

On the back of the secondary bottom, there is a cross thunderbolt in elaborate negative repoussé work. One vajra is connected by light flashes on both sides with the surrounding clouds, wherein we find 5 conch shells. In the center of the cross thunderbolt, a hole has been made in the secondary bottom and this allows to see the backside of the enamel bottom. Which is covered with a dark aubergine counter enamel.
Conch shells are symbols of royalty and prosperous voyage and an emblem of the voice of the Buddha. The vajra or thunderbolt is the emblem of the divine force of Buddha’s doctrine.


The vessel has been made in China without any doubt. Because the stupa and the cross thunderbolt are both on once piece of cloisonné. It is possible that the vessel has been ordered by Tibetans or for Tibet.
The decoration with Lohans on cloisonné is extremely unique and is not easy to attribute it with certainty to one reign or another. Taking into account the number of mixed colors, the fineness of the color powders to be mixed, the use of 2 different skin shades, the very fine pitting of the enamel, the heavy and robust construction, the thickness of the enamel, the wires which are not soldered to each other. All these elements are the base for an attribution of this masterpiece to the second half of the 18th century/ KienLong reign.