Story: Dr. Trinh Sinh
Photos: Dan Toan, Pham Duc Anh

An old Vietnamese saying states: “The gilded meets the eyes like molasses meets the tongue.” This sums up the beauty of gilded objects, long worshipped by both the aristocracy and the common people.

Gilded parrot in Ngoc Son Temple (Hanoi)

Thin slices of gold leaf are inlaid on a wooden surface. As well as using gold, wooden furniture was also painted with vermillion lacquer. Deep red hues and glinting gold enhance the sacred yet strong ambience of pagodas, titular temples and shrines.

Against a backdrop of green lawns, paddy fields, bamboo hedges and green ponds rise the bright red roofs of a titular temple or a village pagoda, adorned with brown kasa Buddhist robes. At the top lie gilded ornaments that exemplify the charm of Vietnamese religious architecture. Gilded decorations set Vietnamese places of worship apart from the cold and solemn sandstone used in Angkor or Champa statues.

In addition to gilded ornaments that beautify the countryside, gilded items also decorated well-known pagodas and places of worship such as Phat Tich Pagoda, Do Temple (dedicated to the eight Emperors of the Ly Dynasty), the Van Mieu – Quoc Tu Giam (Temple of Literature – Imperial University) and, in particular, the Monument Complex of Hue.
Ornaments in the splendid palaces of the Forbidden City include lim wood pillars painted with vermillion lacquer. Palatial signs and  letters are also gilded. A notable example is the The Mieu (Ancestral Temple), which is dedicated to the Emperors of the Nguyen Clan. All altars and worship halls were made from valuable timber, which, coupled with a layout of grand pillars, lesser pillars and wooden lintels painted dark vermillion, serve as a backdrop for sparkling gilded decorative patterns to create a solemn and impressive atmosphere.

Rivaling the imperial architecture is that of the Temple of Literature. The temple is the ultimate symbol of the academic and scholastic traditions that ran through successive dynasties. It too contains scarlet lacquered wooden constructions and splendid gilded hall signs. Each gilded Chinese character is meant to convey our generation’s aspirations to accomplish the academic feats of our forefathers, whose names are forever inscribed on stone stelae.

Statue of Princess Le Thi Ngoc Duyen of the Le Dynasty (Vietnam Fine Arts Museum)

The most solemn places in the Temple of Literature are reserved for the cults of figures who contributed to the construction of the Temple of Literature and the overall academic history of our country, namely Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, Emperor Le Thanh Tong, Chu Van An, etc. Ornaments on their altars include bronze statues of these figures set against vermillion altars and glistening gilded hall signs, parallel sentences and swathes of decorative gilded patterns.

Gilded items are also widespread in Vietnam’s countryside and include statues in pagodas, most of which are made of rare timber. Anonymous artisans breathed life into these statues: Buddhas from the Three Realms, Sakyamuni Buddha and Guanyin, to statues of the Vajrapani Guardians that flank the main Buddhist hall. As well as Buddhist statues, religious items are also gilded and include temple blocks, altars, worship thrones and boxes of ordinances, etc,

Gilded ornaments are even more prevalent in the sculptures of titular temples and temples, particularly from the Renaissance Le Dynasty in the 17th century, a blooming age of folk culture in which every village built a titular temple. A beautiful titular temple had to have swathes of wooden reliefs to decorate its architectural components. Entering an ancient titular temple, visitors are overwhelmed by the reliefs of dragons, phoenixes, lions and even reenactments of popular activities, including buffalo fights, and folk chess games – all portrayed on glistening gilded wooden reliefs.
Gilded objects have been part of Vietnamese culture for over 2,000 years. Strong evidence shows that Vietnamese people used lacquering techniques on wooden surfaces as early as the Dong Son Civilization. Items painted with vernacular lacquer such as wooden trays, liquor glasses and plates are characterized by their dark vermillion or black coating, which remained intact when archeologists excavated these relics from boat tombs. Ancient lacquered items include those found in the Chau Can Tomb (Phu Xuyen District, Hanoi) and the Viet Khe Tomb (Haiphong). A tomb in Duong Du (Thuy Nguyen, Haiphong) still contains a whole tool kit used by a woodcarver and a painter.
Statue of Ngoc Nu (Dau Pagoda)

Gilding and lacquering have long histories in Vietnam. The gilding of statues in a pagoda was once undertaken by painters from specialized villages, include Kieu Ky (Bac Ninh) and Son Dong (Hanoi), both of which are still operating today. They are joined by a dozen other villages that specialize in gilding statues to meet local demands. It seems that whenever pagodas, titular temples and shrines are erected, gilders and painters are available to gild and beautify the statues, hall signs and parallel sentences. Their work adorns both the religious realm and the real world.

This traditional craft requires perseverance and skill. Gilders should understand lacquer mixing techniques to ensure the finished item’s durability and lustrous color, then apply 10 to 15 layers of lacquer and leave them to dry naturally. Next comes the gilding step. Sheets of dó paper are used to apply a mixture of resin, sawdust and buffalo hide glue. Afterwards, the gold is melted, poured into a mold of thin bars and placed under the rubbing sheets to flatten it into papery gold leaves. One ounce of gold can generate 1,000 gold leaves. These thin leaves are carefully applied to the wooden statue to ensure they shimmer brightly and are not stretched.

These gilding and lacquering techniques were recorded in great detail by a Frenchman named Henri Oger, who published a famous book in the early 20th century titled “Crafts of the Annamese People”. Gilding remains a valuable heritage of our nation.