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Japanese Bronze Cylindrical Vessel
with Applied Dragon

Height: 26.7 cm. (10 1/2 in.)
Diameter: 13.3 cm. (5 1/4 in.)

Meiji period
19th century



(NOTE: Further information is provided below the detailed images.)




The cylindrical bronze vessel, its surface with a light-brown patina, is flamboyantly decorated with an intricately cast and detailed dragon wrapped around the body, a line of leiwen (keyfret) circling below the mouth rim in a raised band, and a wide foot surrounding the slightly recessed base. The dragon’s thick torso is covered with large scales, its short limbs ending in three-clawed feet with hooked nails, the head sporting two roughly textured bifurcated horns, the oval eyes beneath an overhanging brow, the mouth agape exposing its tongue and fangs, with a mane flowing behind. Rhythmically curving and curling lines engraved in the cylindrical body appear as clouds above and waves below, the sky and sea being the primary habitats of dragons. The body of the vessel and the dragon have gleaming, light yellowish-brown patinated surfaces with a brighter brassy gold color peeking through in areas that were polished.

This bronze, acquired recently as an addition to our household novelties, not only brought another dragon into our midst, but sparked some memories as well. When we were living in Japan, one of our local temples was Kencho-ji located a good walk from Kita-Kamakura station near our home. After visiting the main temple grounds and standing yet again awestruck in front of the ancient juniper planted by the Chinese priest who founded the temple in the 13th century, we would gather what energy we had left and climb the long path behind the main temple grounds leading to the hilltop Hansobo shrine. What caught us by surprise the first time up were creatures lurking in the thicket of trees and bamboo approaching the shrine—muscular human forms with military body armor, some faces quite simian in nature and with Pinocchio-like long noses or with powerful hooked beaks and massive wings. These were the cast-iron images of the legendary tengu—the protective spirits of the shrine. This was the first time we had been besotted by Japanese sculpture outside of the mainstream. And it happened again in a shop on Shinmonzen in Kyoto soon after we had moved to the Big Island and were making one of the first of many return visits to Japan. We were struck by a colossal Meiji bronze fountain that seemed completely out of place in that relatively small shop. It was lorded over by a dragon cast in astonishing detail and in a remarkable writhing posture. We thought how great that marvel would look on the bluff overlooking Onomea Bay, but that was not to be.

The fountain and related bronze works were spawned by artists with staggering creative imaginations, free-wheeling innovative spirits, and exceptional craftsmanship, all of which worked together to catapult Meiji bronze artistry to celebrity status in the 19th century. Silver, gold, and copper, along with gold or silver and copper alloys, a range of controlled patinas, and semi-precious stones, sometimes inlaid flush against the surface and at others raised in relief, produced images with contrasting colors and textures to outstanding effect. Vessel shapes and techniques veered dramatically away from precedent metalware traditions. Private workshops and metalworking companies burgeoned to meet market demands at home and in the West. While the present vessel is not as flamboyant nor as elegantly refined as Meiji bronzes could be, it does carry the spirit of the age and adds handsomely to our discovery of dragons.


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