This magnificent vase exemplifies the artistic and technical quality of bronze vessels cast for the imperial court and is exceptionally rare as it is inscribed with a three-character mark on its foot. It would have been made as part of a five-piece temple or altar garniture comprising a censer, a pair of vases and a pair of pricket candlesticks, all of equally impressive size and weight. The inscription on the foot, Fengxian Dian, clearly states that this vase was made specifically for ritual purposes in the Hall of Ancestral Worship, which is located in the east side of the Forbidden City, and had functioned as the place for ancestral worship for the Imperial family since the Ming dynasty.
Sacrificial ceremonies were among the most important rituals of the Qing court, with the emperor attending, if not performing, all of the major rites. Buddhism was the primary religion of the Qing dynasty and there were numerous Buddhist shrines and temples, as well as altars in the private quarters of the emperor and empresses. All of these necessitated ritual paraphernalia, including altar garnitures, which were made in various materials including bronze, porcelain and cloisonné enamel, and garnitures of varying size.
A complete garniture in bronze, but of far more simple design, is illustrated by Wan Yi, et al., in situ in the shrine in the Hall for Worshipping Buddhas, Daily Life in the Forbidden City, New York, 1988, pl. 467. Three different bronze altar garnitures can be seen in a photograph of the Qin An Temple illustrated by Yu Zhuoyun, Palaces of the Forbidden City, Hong Kong, 1986, pp. 198-9, pl. 222. Another imperial bronze five-piece garniture of smiliar size also heavily cast with dragons, and with Qianlong reign marks, was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 11 April 2008, lot 2826. A pair of imperial bronze vases of very similar design, but of larger size (76.5 cm. high) was sold at Christie's London, 15 May 2012, lot 188. Another pair of imperial bronze vases of this impressive type, but of smaller size (16 in. high), also with Qianlong marks, but of fanghu form and decorated with dragons and phoenix, was sold at Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 9 October 2007, lot 1322. See, also, the pair of massive (36 in. high) imperial bronze vases cast with Qianlong reign marks from the Alfred Morrison Collection, Fonthill House, sold at Christie's London, 9 November 2004, lot 17. Of the same shape as the present vases, they are designed with phoenix motifs.