Culture Culture

19/01/2019 - 09:51

East-west beauty in decoration at Khai Dinh Mausoleum

Among the royal mausoleums of the Nguyen Dynasty, Khai Dinh Mausoleum is a clear-cut example of the east-west combination.

The capital of the pillar in Corinthian style

The influence of the West can be seen, first of all, in the use of exotic materials such as cement, glass, oil paint, etc. Specifically cement and its products such as mortar and concrete are seen everywhere, the gate, the two obelisks, the octagonal stele house and the Hall of Thien Dinh, decorated with rounded statues of cement and mortal. 

Glass can be found at the dragons’ eyes or the blue Van symbols (swastika in Buddhism) on the arches and the walls of Thien Dinh Hall. On its ceiling is the famous oil painting Cuu Long An Van (Dragons Hidden in Clouds) by the painter Phan Van Tanh. Oil paint is suitable for realism. It enables artists to paint their openness and boldness.

The influence can be seen also in the decoration on pillars with typical western patterns. Take the capitals of the pillars at the octagonal stele house or the pillars in Thien Dinh Hall for instance; they are all decorated in the Corinthian style.

The Corinthian style first appeared in the 5th century BC. The capital of the pillar is in the shape of a two-layered bouquet of acan leaves. At the stele house, the pillar capitals are made of cement, grey in color, while the capitals of the pillars in Thien Dinh Hall are decorated with pottery mosaics of acan leaves. 

Western Doric pillars can be found too. This type of pillar was created by the Doric in Greece in the 1st century BC. At Khai Dinh Mausoleum, the Doric pillars are unconventional in that they are changed into square tubes and do not support anything, but mainly for the sake of decoration. 

Some typical western patterns or symbols such as fences of crosses are also used. The walls in Thien Dinh Hall are decorated in the neo-classical style with images of Lily of Valley, the flower that French people like.

Erupting Dragon and Fish

Some other western objects such as lamps, clocks, champagne glasses, etc., can also be found in the sophisticated pottery mosaics on the panels in Thien Dinh Hall. These objects do not symbolize anything. They are just for decoration, which makes Khai Dinh Mausoleum diverse and original.

However eastern beauty can still be seen clearly in decoration. An important material is pottery. In Vietnam, pottery had appeared and been used in decoration from an early time. This was continued and developed as seen at the Nguyen Emperors’ mausoleums. The interior of Khai Dinh Mausoleum is the best evidence.

At Khai Dinh Mausoleum, besides pottery, terracotta, porcelain available in the country, the emperor had them imported from China and Japan too. He even had people break old beautiful and valuable vases into pieces to make mosaics on the walls. 

With their skillful hands and creativity, talented artisans made many beautiful pottery mosaics depicting nature in tropical flamboyant colors. The mosaics even become more sparkling with light. This makes Khai Dinh Mausoleum brilliant, but not cold and depressing.

Familiar eastern decorative themes are Four Sacred Animals: dragon, unicorn, turtle and phoenix. Since the dragon symbolizes the heaven’s son, i.e. the emperor, it can be seen everywhere with such motifs as Two Dragons and the Sun, Dragons Hidden in Clouds, Erupting Dragon and Fish, etc. 

The theme of Four Precious Flowers: apricot blossom, orchid, daisy, and bamboo (sometimes orchid is replaced by lotus, bamboo by conifer) symbolizes the virtues of a noble man and praises the beauty of nature in the four seasons. To easterners, the themes of Eight Precious Objects and Eight Precious Fruits and the images of fish, bat, cock represent happiness and wealth. These themes convey good values of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, and reflect easterners’ wish for a happy and serene life.

With the combination of eastern and western arts, Khai Dinh Mausoleum is an original monument, standing out from the previous ones. It reflects the history and the culture at the time and also the personality of its owner, a daring and open-minded emperor, who was willing to welcome new things while respecting traditional values.

Story and photos: Hong Ha