An exquisite 15th century Ming Butter Lamp is heading to auction at Bonhams London on May 17 with an undisclosed estimate likely to be in the low millions.
The enormous piece is constructed from gilt-bronze and stands at a metre in height. These devotional lamps were typically found in Tibetan temples and Bonhams’ suggests it may have been produced in China’s imperial workshops as a diplomatic gift to a religious leader in the mountain kingdom.
The auction house explains: “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.”
The piece bears a Jingtai character mark that indicates it was made between 1449 and 1457. As the short time period suggests, this was a turbulent time in Chinese history. Genghis Khan’s Mongols had captured the previous emperor and Jingtai ascended the throne nervously. Few major works of art were produced as there were bigger fish to fry.
We’ve been unable to track down anything comparable to this Butter Lamp, something that is sure to contribute to its allure on auction day.