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.
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.
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.
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,
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.