150 A monumental Imperial exceptionally rare cast gilt-bronze ritual butter lamp Early Ming Dynasty, circa first half 15th century, cast Jingtai six-character mark.jpg
This monumental imperial cast gilt-bronze ritual butter lamp from the first half of the 15th century features a cast Jintai six-character mark and sold for £1.33m at Bonhams last week.

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The ritual butter lamp dates from the first half of the 15th century. It is cast with the six-character imperial reign mark of the Jingtai Emperor (r.1449-57) and measures an impressive 3ft 6in (1.06m) high. An essential element in the offering practices of Tibetan Buddhism, a vessel such as this represents the offering of light to enlightened beings and would have been fuelled with offerings of yak butter or oil.

Included in the London auction house’s Fine Chinese Art sale on May 17, the vessel is the only one of such proportions with the Imperial Jingtai reign mark known to have survived. Published several times over and with a provenance dating back to Spink & Son in the 1960s or 70s, it was offered with an undisclosed estimate. In the event it took a premium-inclusive £1.33m.

The sale total came to a £6.83m, also including buyer’s premium.

Jingtai works are rare due to the relatively short period of the reign as well as the turbulent circumstances surrounding it. The emperor replaced his brother when the latter was captured by the Oyrat Mongols. Upon his release he was placed under house arrest until the death of the Jingtai Emperor. Political conditions made support of Tibetan Buddhism, already important for imperial rulers, essential.

A piece of this quality would have been made to order by the imperial workshops and gifted by the emperor to an important monastery, temple or a as a diplomatic gift to a high-ranking Tibetan hierarch.