No other examples of such magnificent cloisonné dragons appear to have been published, and it seems likely that this pair is unique. Not only the subject matter, but the size, powerful modelling, complexity of design, and above all the extraordinary quality of these dragons confirm that they must have been made for the court by the imperial ateliers.
The five-clawed dragon was the symbol of the Chinese emperor, and is shown in many forms on court art. The Chinese dragon, unlike his European counterpart, is a beneficent creature - not only the essence of the Yang (male) properties, but also a bringer of rain. The dragon was supposed to rise from winter hibernation among the waves at the spring equinox to bring the rain necessary to nurture the crops. This pair of cloisonné dragons are thus depicted rising majestically from the waves.
It seems most probable that this large and impressive pair of dragons was intended to stand before or to the side of an imperial throne in one of the major palace halls, such as the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Not only would they have echoed the theme of much of the throne furnishings, but also aspects of the building itself. The huge pillars flanking the throne were made from the massive trunks of nanmu cedars, some weighing as much as 20 metric tons, which had taken four years to haul some 1,000 miles from Sichuan province in southwest China to Beijing, and were decorated in gold, with gold imperial five-clawed dragons writhing around them. Above the throne in the high, coffered, gilded ceiling were two more gilded, coiled, dragons bearing flaming pearls in their mouths as seen in Zijincheng di hou shenghuo, Beijing, 1982, pp. 20 - 21. The elaborately carved and gilded throne stood on a high platform in front of an equally grand, gilded screen, while on either side of the throne were precious vessels and ornaments, usually made of cloisonné enamel. These included sets of incense burners, brilliantly colored elephants with vases on their backs, which symbolized peace, and large elegant cranes, symbolizing long life. See Chuimei Ho and B. Bronson, Splendors of China's Forbidden City, Field Museum Chicago, 2004, p. 49, pl. 36. Records also indicate that they included various mythological animals symbolizing the virtue and wisdom of the emperor. It is in this capacity that the current pair of dragons are likely to have been intended.
Not only are the dragons modelled rising powerfully from turbulent waves in preparation for providing essential rain to ensure a good harvest, they are also shown rising through multicolored clouds, which themselves provide a rebus for good luck. Each dragon is additionally accompanied by a gilded flaming pearl. The origin of the flaming pearl (often depicted being chased by two dragons) is obscure, but may have originated from the Buddhist idea of a wish-granting jewel (cintamani). Some have associated it with the sun, but in Ming and Qing times it seems to have more often been identified as a lunar orb or a mystical charm. Thus these imperial dragons are depicted at their most impressive and auspicious - worthy symbols of the emperor. It is significant that the dragons are also shown with naturalistically formed rocks, since multicolored rocks, clouds and waves accompany the five-clawed dragons on the so-called 'dragon robes' worn by the emperor on formal occasions (G. Dickinson and L. Wrigglesworth, Imperial Wardrobe, London, 1990, p. 33, pl. 23).
While no precisely similar cloisonné dragons seem to have survived, a rare Qianlong cloisonné and gilt dragon stand with hanging flower basket illustrated by J. Getz, Catalogue of the Avery Collection of Ancient Chinese Cloisonnés, Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, Brooklyn, New York, 1912, p. 50, no. 84, bears some relationship to the current pieces. The Brooklyn piece is of similar height (36½ in.) and comprises a five-clawed dragon coiling upwards around a pole composed of elaborate clouds and topped by what is described in the catalogue as 'a sacred pearl in gilt bronze'.