Story Behind the Unusual Jingtai Mark on £1.3m Chinese Ritual Butter Lamp

Bonhams London held a single-lot sale on 17 May presenting an Imperial gilt-bronze ritual butter lamp from the early Ming dynasty (circa first half 15th century). Estimated at £1.2m, the lamp bears a Jingtai six-character mark. It was finally sold for £1.3m. When you take a closer look at character mark, you will notice something interesting.

The butter lamp is in a colossal proportion and immense weight, with a 102.6cm height and a diameter of 102.1cm. The bowl is cast with the six-character reign mark reading from right to left: 'Da Ming Jingtai Nian Zhi' (made in the great Ming dynasty Jingtai reign). But there is something unusual about the mark, where the three characters Jing tai and zhi are separately cast but would appear to bear the same thick gilding as the rest of the surface and other characters. There are several possibilities, which will be further explored in the article.

Before we move on to the possible reasons for the fascinating observation about the mark, let’s take us first get to know more about the Jingtai Emperor. The Jingtai Emperor, Zhu Qiyu, was the second son of the Xuande Emperor. Following the defeat in the Battle of the Tumu Fort in 1449, his brother the Zhengtong Emperor was captured by the Oyrat Mongols. Thus, he succeeded the Zhengtong Emperor on throne. The Zhengtong Emperor was released in 1450 and was granted the title of Emperor Emeritus.

The Zhengtong Emperor

Despite the release of the Zhengtong Emperor from captivity, the Jingtai Emperor chose to remain on the throne and placed the Emperor Emeritus in house arrest. The Jingtai Emperor's reign only lasted for eight years as he was suffering from deteriorating health in 1457. The Emperor Emeritus staged a coup and regained the throne as the Tianshun Emperor. The Jingtai Emperor died in the same year after ruling the country for only eight years.

Now, back to the butter lamp. The first possibility for the unsual casting on the mark is that the vessel and the mark are contemporaneous to the Jingtai period, i.e. Jingtai mark and of the period (1449 - 1457). This could be the case if there were casting flaws or complications in the more complex characters including a larger number of strokes, which may have required special casting. The gilding applied to the surface would have been thick and would have disguised any border lines, as indeed can be often seen on gilt-bronze figures originally repaired with rectangular 'patches', which over the years are often exposed.

The second possibility is that the butter lamp was made before the Jingtai period, but that the Jingtai and zhi characters were cast during the Jingtai period, replacing an earlier Imperial reign mark, possibly of the Yongle, Xuande or Zhengtong periods. It should be noted that the present inscription is written from right to left. Yongle and Xuande reign marks on Buddhist bronzes are, however, typically inscribed left to right, following the direction of the Tibetan script.

The third possibility is that the Jingtai and zhi characters were altered after the Jingtai period. This would appear to be an unlikely option because it is unclear why the last character has been replaced.

The present lot is possible to be lamp shown in the image above. The photo was taken in the Tashilhunpo monastery in 1939

Compared to the other two possibilities, specialists believe first option is more likely to be the reason, as supported by the lack of a convincing explanation for replacing the last character zhi. Imperial reign marks have three possible endings: zhi, zao (both meaning 'made'), and shi (meaning 'bestowed'). If the present last character is a replacement, it could have only replaced a zao or a shi. There would be no apparent reason to alter a zao to a zhi, as these would appear to be interchangeable in meaning.

The butter lamp was exhibited in the Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam


A monumental Imperial exceptionally rare cast gilt-bronze ritual butter lamp
Early Ming Dynasty, circa first half 15th century, cast Jingtai six-character mark

Lot no.: 150
Size: 102.6 x 102.1 x 88.8cm
Weight: 335kg

  • Spink & Son, Ltd., London
  • An English private collection, London
  • Christie's London, 15 December 1983, lot 374
  • Compagnie de la Chine et des Indes, Mike Winter – Rousset, Paris, 1984 - 1990
  • A European private collection, circa 1990 – 2014
  • The Bodhimanda Foundation

Estimate on Request (The Value learnt the estimate is £1,200,000)
Hammer price: £1,100,000
Price realised: £1,328,750

Auction details

Auction house: Bonhams London
Sale: A Monumental Gilt-bronze Ritual Butter Lamp
Date: 2018/5/17