A whistle-stop tour of cinnabar ornaments

A rare cinnabar lacquer box and cover incised mark and period of Yongle beneath a carved Xuande mark. A rare cinnabar lacquer box and cover incised mark and period of Yongle beneath a carved Xuande mark. Sold for HKD4,807,500 (c. USD 614,701) via Sotheby's (April 2008).

The story of cinnabar as a pigment in ornaments dates back to at least the 10th millennium BC. Born as a vein-filling mineral associated with recent volcanic activity and alkaline hot springs, the ruddy hue of this natural mineral pigment is the embodiment of the hot and fiery conditions in which it forms, and this intensity is reflected in the ornaments that it lacquers.

Chinese carved cinnabar lacquerware, late Qing dynasty.

Chinese carved cinnabar lacquerware, late Qing dynasty. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

Cinnabar ornaments aren’t wallflowers. This is a color that demands your attention, and intricately carved in the form of lacquer, it’s hard to take your eyes off it. In fact, that deep red hue from the mineral that colors the lacquer is so closely associated with its ornaments that it’s often used to describe a Chinese style of carved colored lacquer.

Chinese lacquerware has been produced since the third century BC, but carved lacquer didn’t make an appearance until around the 14th century during the Ming dynasty. Lacquer carving is what helped to give cinnabar objects a surface that was as thrilling as its engaging scarlet color. And it may go without saying that cinnabar ornaments would have even greater significance due to the symbolism of the color red in Chinese culture. It’s associated with happiness and good fortune, life and fertility. Believed to ward off evil, red is the color traditionally worn by Chinese brides.

Traditionally made using the resin or sap of trees found in southern China, many layers of lacquer, tinted with cinnabar, would be applied to a base structure, which was often made from wood, until the surface could be carved into complex geometric or figural forms. It should be noted that real cinnabar is a toxic mercury sulfide, and there would be a danger of mercury poisoning if ancient lacquerware was to be destroyed without precaution. As such, more contemporary cinnabar pieces are made instead using a non-toxic resin-based polymer. 

High demand for cinnabar ornaments 

And these sculptural forms often are in great demand among collectors. Some of the extraordinary narrative scenes found on lacquers date back as far as the late fourteenth and fifteenth century, and are given depth and a life of their own by delicately carved backgrounds in which different geometric designs are used to show earth, water, and sky.

This can easily be seen on some of the most valuable cinnabar ornaments to have appeared at auction. Offering real slices of history, Christie’s offered a magnificent early Ming large carved cinnabar lacquer square tray in 2009. It had previously been on display at the British Museum, London, in 1973, as part of the Chinese and Associated Lacquer from the Garner Collection, as well as The Shoto Museum of Art in Japan in 1991. 

Time capsules

The intricately carved tray from the Hongwu period (1368-1398) still has the unmistakable deep and rich hue of cinnabar, even after more than 600 years. The history of the piece is evident through the thick red layers to the centre. It has a pictorial landscape depicting two equestrian scholar officials arriving at a country retreat being greeted by attendants, offering them food and preparing tea.

Similarly, a highly important and extremely rare imperial polychrome lacquer ‘dragon’ box appeared at Christie’s in 2011, showcasing the same incredible attention to detail of the carving and that incredible red color that’s all of its own. This time, though, the result is different thanks to the process of layering the green and yellow lacquer. There’s a central roundel containing a fierce full-face dragon; its eyes picked out in black, amid vaporous ruyi-shaped clouds coiling around a ‘flaming pearl’. A piece like this would immediately attract attention, regardless of what room it was placed in.

The color of cinnabar has a magnetic appeal and when it’s contrasted with a delicately painted overglaze enamel decoration in crisp white, yellow and pink, the cinnabar is given even more space to show off its lustrous hue. The cinnabar lacquer embellished famille rose vase from the Jiaqing period (1796-1820) features a neck covered in red lacquer and similarly carved with ruyi and classic lotus scroll.

All this pales in comparison to the skill involved in creating a pair of carved cinnabar lacquer ‘dragon’ armchairs. The production of carved cinnabar lacquered furniture is extremely time consuming and the above lot displays the most skilful craftsmanship of the Qianlong period. However, perhaps not suitable for use around the dining room table!

Accessible cinnabar

Cinnabar ornaments aren’t exclusively reserved for the high-end collector though, as they’re widely available at more accessible prices, just without quite the same historical significance. It might not belong to a Chinese dynasty, but the above cinnabar vase with stand feature still showcases that deep and intriguing burnt and earthy red with an intricate design. 

The same can be also said of a lacquerware box that shares a similar style to earlier featured dragon box, with a wonderfully detailed carved lid that will undoubtedly reveal something new up on each viewing. Also from Bestie Art and Jewelry in Temple City, CA, a cinnabar bowl that sold in 2018 might not have the same provenance, but a weathered look and contrasting tones and materials once again ensures that the splashes of red immediately catch the eye.

So, taking all that into consideration, it just depends on whether you want your striking cinnabar ornament to have come from an ancient Chinese dynasty, or somewhere a little closer to home and the present day. Either way though, that deep red that deserves a trademark all of its own remains the same and dominates any room, space, or museum.