A white-glazed pottery elephant-shaped candle holder

唐早期   白釉胡人騎象燭臺

The beast is modelled standing square on an oval ring-shaped base moulded with pendent lotus lappets. The head faces forwards with trunk held straight down and fan-shaped ears  pinned back. A small tusk is visible on one side. There are two halter straps: a browband running across the head between the ears; and a thicker, braided strap extending the length of the trunk. This latter strap reaches all the way up to the mahout seated cross-legged on the back of the neck, behind the pronounced forehead bulges. The mahout is flanked by a pair of feline atlantid figures, half-standing, and there is a further atlas figure, like a grinning demon, crouching with hands on knees, at the back. Beneath the figures is a saddle blanket with a bold beaded border, secured with neck and crupper straps and decorated with pendent  palmettes; and jointly supported by them above is a large cylindrical candle holder with wide drip-pan. The light-coloured body is applied overall with a finely crackled translucent white glaze.

Sotheby’s New York, 31st March 2005, lot 10

Several closely related elephant-shaped candle holders are known, differing in the type and number of riders and in the shape of the receptacle. An example with the same type of candle holder, but with a single curlyhaired foreigner clasping its stem, excavated 
at Dunbeicun, near Chang’an in 2001 and now in the Chang’an Museum, is illustrated in China at the Court of the Emperors, Unknown Masterpieces, from Han Tradition to Tang Elegance (25-907), fig. 83, p. 199, and discussed p. 293, where the author notes that elephants were sent as tribute by South-East Asian countries, particularly Champa. An example of a candle holder with a similar arrangement of mahout and other figures but with a bowl- shaped receptacle is in the British Museum, donated by Henry J. Oppenheim, museum number 1931,1215.1.

A small group of related but larger examples of elephant candlabra exist, bearing six candle holders around a central bowl, but lacking (with one exception) human or humanoid figures. Both the larger and the smaller types have prominent lotus decoration, suggesting a strong Buddhist connection. An identification with the White Elephant, with its close symbolic links to the Buddha, is probably justified, and is supported by the rendition of some examples of the smaller type of elephant as having six tusks. However, the larger elephants, and some of the smaller ones, as here, lack this feature, suggesting that the potters, while mindful of the idea of the White Elephant, are modelling elephants used in ceremonies or court spectacles. If this is correct, perhaps we should read the broad vertical braided strap on the elephant’s trunk of the present figure not as simple decoration but as a device by which the mahout can control the elephant’s trunk, making it salute at his command. 

The kilns of origin of these elephant candle holders have not yet been established; perhaps the most likely candidate in the present case are the Gongyi kilns in Henan province.

Dimensions: Height: 21.5 cm, 8 ½ inches

Date: Early Tang dynasty (618-906), 7th Century

Stock No. 1965

Price: On Request