The elephant was the embodiment of strength, wisdom and intelligence and the vase represented eternal harmony. As such, elephants with vases on their backs were put beside the throne to symbolize universal peace. A pair of blue cloisonné enamel elephants with vases on their backs can be seen flanking the elaborate throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, Beijing, in a photograph illustrated in Imperial Life in the Qing Dynasty, The Empress Place Museum, Singapore, 1989, p. 46.
The present elephant is particularly unusual, in that it is a combination of lacquered wood, painted decoration and cloisonné enamel. More often they were made of gilt-bronze and/or cloisonné, or painted enamel. For a small (4 in. high) cloisonné elephant with similar trappings and a vase of similar shape on its back see C. Brown, Chinese Cloisonné: The Clague Collection, Phoenix Art Museum, 1980, pp. 112-3, pl. 49, where one can see the attempt to simulate the animal's hide with the use of gilt wires in an enamel ground. For two pairs of gilt-bronze and cloisonné enamel elephants, one of slightly smaller size, sold by Christie's New York, see lot 353 from the C. Ruxton and Audrey B. Love Collection, 20 October 2004, and lot 177, 19 September 2007.