Huu Vi

Discover the enduring beauty of Vietnam’s ancient green enameled ceramics

In 1009, Emperor Ly Cong Uan was crowned, marking the advent of the Ly Dynasty and the foundation of a sovereign and independent nation. The Ly Dynasty brought about a renaissance of the nation’s culture. This era marked a giant leap in the history of Vietnamese ceramics. It was at this time that green enameled ceramics first appeared and soon reached their apex. Requiring sophisticated skills in terms of clay-handling and firing techniques, these ceramics were produced until the 17th or 18th centuries across the Tran Dynasty, Preliminary Le Dynasty, Mac Dynasty and Renaissance Le Dynasty.

Green enameled ceramics are created of bronze oxides mixed with raw limestone tempered in oxidized fire. Once the lead oxides are added, the green darkens. However, the crafting of ceramics is tricky. Slight changes in the fire, time, baking temperatures and crafting techniques can yield wildly different results. The green enameled ceramics of Vietnam are hugely varied. The shades of green are myriad and include bright green, dark green, pale green, apple green, sapphire green, golden green and amber green. To generalize, different greens are associated with the ceramics produced during different dynasties.

Dragon ears incense burner Mac Dynasty - Renaissance Le Dynasty, 16-17th century Collection Thu Hoa, Ha Noi

During the Ly Dynasty (11th – 13th centuries), the enamel was moderately baked, resulting in a brittle, fine and pink core accentuated with fresh enamel in even shades of green. During the Tran and Ho Dynasties (13th – 14th centuries), on account of the havoc wrought nationwide in the wake of prolonged resistance against foreign invaders, the ceramics were less delicate. Green enameled ceramics made during these eras were mainly made of brick and intensively baked to the core. Hence, the green enamel turned darker and was less even. These features give green enameled ceramics from the Tran Dynasty their masculine and rustic beauty. In the Preliminary Le Dynasty (15th century), the enamel was moderately baked to a bright color, yet the core was fairly thin. In the meantime, darker and intensively baked ceramics were still being produced. During the Mac – Renaissance Le Dynasty (16th – 18th centuries) only intensively baked green enameled ceramics were produced. These ceramics were not totally covered in plain green, but had glazed relief patterns on white enamel or bare decorative reliefs on green.

While other ceramic lines were hugely diverse in their styles, green enameled ceramics were reserved for household items such as bowls, plates, boxes, jugs, jars, limestone jugs; religious items such as cauldrons, incense urns, and nghê worship statuettes; and materials and ornaments for royal buildings, including floor tiles, roof tiles or decorative roof statues.

Bowl with the printing of children in paradise Ly Dynasty, 11-13th century Vietnam National Museum of History

Various decorative techniques were employed. Some of the patterns were hidden, only appearing when wet. External molding techniques were often used on boxes, statues, bricks and tiles. The artisans engraved decorative patterns on the mold used to shape the ceramics. After the mold was removed, the decorative patterns were left on the ceramics’ surface. Internal molding techniques were mainly used for household items such as bowls and plates. This technique involves two types of molds – shaping molds and decorative patterning molds. The artisan engraves a negative pattern of the decorative motifs on the patterning mold. While the ceramic remained soft, the artisan would press this mold against the inside of the product to transfer the pattern.

Some bowls, plates, jugs and jars were also engraved. Bamboo knives or sharpened sticks were used to carve decorative patterns on unbaked ceramics before or after applying enamel. The knife tip was inclined against the surface to yield thin or thick, or shallow or deep cuts that looked exquisite and flexible.

An external gluing technique was also used. Decorative patterns are crafted or molded separately, then applied to unbaked ceramics before the pieces are kilned. This technique was developed during the Mac – Renaissance Le Dynasty for religious items such as cauldrons, incense urns and nghê statuettes. Swathes of glued decorative patterns were draped in green enamel to reduce their intensity and add a solid touch to the patterns.

  Decorative motifs include lotuses, chrysanthemums, ochnas, peonies, ferns, twisted ropes, floral vines, children swinging on floral vines and leaves, dragons, nghê, shrimp, fish and waves. The green enameled ceramics of the Ly Dynasty feature decorative patterns characterized by curves and intense swathes of patterns. Green enameled ceramics from the Tran Dynasty were rustic and solid. Green enameled ceramics from the Preliminary Le Dynasty were neat and austere. Meanwhile, white green enameled ceramics from the Mac – Renaissance Le Dynasty boast delicate yet firm lines.

Throughout these dynasties, green enameled ceramics were rare. We can count the known surviving items on display in museums and in private and overseas collections. The reason for this rarity is simple: making these ceramics required great skill and technical ability, hard work and passion. Given their beauty and rarity these items were prized by the royals and nobles of their time.