Culture Culture

19/10/2017 - 10:12

Wood carving art on the stele house at Thieu Tri Tomb

Thieu Tri became King in 1840, but passed away 7 years later (on November 11th, 1847) at the age of 41. The successor, King Tu Duc started the construction of the tomb for King Thieu Tri on February 11th, 1848 with the participation of thousands of workers and soldiers.

A pair of flutes...

On November 19th, 1848, the stele with King Tu Duc's words inscribed on it was erected, which also marked the completion of the tomb.

Thieu Tri Tomb boasts various decorative forms of high aesthetic value. It is the combination of various materials and decorative arts such as the art of bronze casting through the gates with dragons in clouds and the majestic statues of con nghe (imaginary animal; combination of dog and lion) in the courtyard, the original art of painted enamel on the panels on the gates and in Bieu Duc Hall, the arts of masonry embossing, masonry painting, ceramic mosaics, stone carving, lacquering and gilding, etc. All are diverse in form and theme such as Four Sacred Animals (dragon in clouds, unicorn on globe, turtle carrying books, phoenix), Four Seasons (apricot blossom and bird, duck and lotus, crane and willow, deer and pine), Eight Objects of Worship (fish drum, sword, book, pen, fan, flute, three mountains, chessboard), Eight Fruits (peach, pomegranate, custard apple, Buddha's hand, gourd, plum, etc.)

One of the outstanding structures of Thieu Tri Tomb is the big stele house just behind the courtyard, on a two-tiered foundation with 13 paved steps leading to the stele. Two giant dragons of stone from Thanh Hoa lie along both sides. The stele house combines different decorative materials such as masonry embossment, masonry painting, painted enamel, ceramic mosaics, enameled pottery, terra cotta, wood carving, stone carving, decorative tiles, etc. In the center of the house stands the stone stele of 3.25m high and 1.50m wide, placed on another stone, 2.30m wide and 1m high. It is meticulously carved in themes such as Two Dragons, Dragons Hidden in Clouds, Eight Objects of Worship, Flowers and Leaves Turning into Dragons. There are altogether 2,539 characters on the stele, arranged in 23 columns.

In the essay on the stele, King Tu Duc wrote: "I wrote this to praise King Thieu Tri and to be inscribed on the stele for eternity." Besides the stele itself, the structure also boasts a system of eight-object-of-worship ornaments carved on wooden beams, panels and windows.

Unlike the stele houses at Gia Long and Minh Mang Tombs, which are lacquered and gilded, the stele house at Thieu Tri Tomb is not. It is the roughness of wood and the skillful carvings that makes the stele house unique. The system of panels and windows are decorated on both sides; some have identical sides, but most of them are different.

The exterior stele house at Thieu Tri Tomb is decorated with panels. Each wall has 7 panels, 4 of which are inscribed with poems or large Chinese characters. The other 3 are embellished with the eight objects of worship. Usually, in wooden constructions in Nguyen Dynasty's times, the panels are lacquered and gilded in "one-poem-one-painting" or "one-letter-one-painting" style, but at Thieu Tri Tomb, they are varied not only in theme but also in shape, form and material, and not lacquered and gilded.

... and the leaf carving at Thieu Tri Tomb

The interior stele house is also decorated with eight-object-of-worship panels, but unlike the intermittent ones on the exterior house, the panels here are continuous and successive, forming two different rows: the upper and the lower with graceful and elegant carvings of flowers and animals. The carvings are in different layers with highlighted details and minor ones, linked with one another by designs and patterns as soft as silk.

Most of the panels serve as the background for the main decorative motif. Images of interwoven leaves can be found everywhere in different depths and various forms. Besides, there are decorative patterns on objects of worship such as waving lines on gourds, patterns on flutes, pens and lutes. The art of wood carving on the stele house at Thieu Tri Tomb reaches the high level by leading artisans who were selected from all over the country. Langrand once said: "Vietnamese people are masters in wood carving and most of their works are masterpieces."

The stele house at Thieu Tri Tomb is seriously degrading now. It requires urgent research and conservation regarding both architecture and aesthetics. Noticeably, it is the only stele house with pillars and a tiled roof at the Nguyen royal tombs that has not been restored.

Story and photos: Phan Thanh Binh