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Marvelous Carvings


Fine art in Vietnam has undergone a series of rises and falls over the past two millennia, changing significantly in style and persuasion: bright copper engravings marked the early Dong Son period, and expressive ceramics flourished under the Ly dynasty, while stronger, imposing styles were a sign of the Tran dynasty. The creative works of both common and imperial artists were consistently under the influence of religious and political elements in society. Throughout Vietnam's long history, exquisite talent came and went, often standing out from the crowd, leaving behind relics of the past that surprise us even today for their skill and vision. 

One striking period in Vietnam's artistic past occurred during the Mac dynasty, roughly beginning when Mac Dang Dung overthrew the Le dynasty in 1527. Significant changes in economy, politics, and general society came to being under the Mac dynasty, despite its brief existence. To gain approval, many prohibitions were abandoned, allowing a more liberal society to blossom. The sudden acceptance of more open thought stimulated a boom in artistic work. As a result, the period witnessed a major and rapid development in popular fine arts.

In traditional motifs, the dragon was the most common sacred object. As a symbol of the king, it was consistently placed in a central position and was associated with supreme power. But this icon varied during the Mac dynasty, where the architecture of pagodas and communal houses were carved with dragons that looked not as solemn as before. The dragons carved on the pillars of Tay Dang communal house (Ha Tay) and on the gates of the Teacher Pagoda had short and stout bodies, and snouts as small that of actual living animals. The dragons carved in Ngo Pagoda (Ba Vi, Ha Tay) and Boi Khe Pagoda (Ha Tay) had short faces, big eyes and open mouths, belching out whirling clouds and frame. These dragons hardly conformed to the strict rules of previous periods that demanded exactly5 claws and were used only to present kings. They began to appear in households and offerings, from pottery to woodwork. In Tay Dang communal house, such creative variations as fish-bodied dragons or dragons with fish tails and paddle-shaped legs could also be found. Such innovation would have been unacceptable in previous periods.

Art was imbued with fresh creative spirit in places like Ha Bac as well. In pagodas and communal houses, out of the dark appeared vivid images of deer, horses and elephants postures popular and mischievous. The deer in Tho Ha or Lo Hanh communal houses were moving forward with their heads turned back. The deer on the bricks of the Hundred Room Pagoda had long horns and carried an S character. Both the deer and horses seemed to be racing against time. In Tay Dang communal house, horses even appeared winged, coming as a surprise to researchers who previously believed that the Pegasus played no role in Vietnamese popular art.

The tiger was also a preferential theme. The tiger was suitable for rulers because it was regarded as a king with supernatural powers, and a threat to humans. However, tigers created under the Mac period looked lovable and mischievous like cats.

The tigers carved in So Pagoda (Ha Tay) had huge heads, straight hind legs as well as bending and one rising foreleg. Tigers carved in the Hundred Room Pagoda were of 3 different styles, including walking, fleeing and standing with its head perked up. The ferocity of traditional tigers was hardly present here.

Even such huge animals as elephants were made more approachable. In the Hundred Rooms Pagoda, elephants and horses were depicted running together. And at Tay Dang communal house, elephants are carved working the fields like buffalo. They seemed to be smiling, turning back their heads with their trunks rolling tusks pointing proudly skyward and four legs flying up from the ground.

Of the four legged animals, the Unicorn was the most common. It came as narrow and well-defined as a deer, or as fat as a bull. The Unicorn at Tho Ha communal house had bird heads; those carved on bricks in Boi Khe Pagoda and on the statue bases in Ngo Pagoda had dragon heads; and those in Lo Hanh communal house had other animal heads. This symbol of the supernatural also entered village life, which was exemplified in the image of two Unicorns prancing on the sun at Lo Hanh communal house. Vividly depicted, they have firm bodies, straight forelegs, bent hind legs and perking tails.

Though less frequent than dragons and Unicorns, birds and Phoenixes were also popular icons. The Phoenix found a new style. In the Hundred Room and Boi Khe Pagodas, the Phoenix was simply feathered, had bent wings, and backward head, and was pictured alone rather than in pairs. The Phoenixes Lo Hanh communal house had 1,2m long wings, and were actually geese with spreading wings. A few neck feathers and whirled clouds turned them into Phoenixes.

The goose-shaped Phoenix was more or less discreet. More amusing were the Phoenixes carved in the Teacher Pagoda, which were more like storks with stylized tails and whirling clouds. And simpler still were the Phoenixes carved on the bricks of the Hundred Room pagoda, which looked like walking cocks with sparsely feathered tails.

As for birds, you some times find couples of storks facing each other and flying birds carved or embossed on bricks, or even such fantastic images as magpie robins in Lo Hanh communal house or birds pecking at the Unicorn's mouth.

Within the vast scope of Vietnamese antiquity, the Mac dynasty produced an important change in the development of art, as old images were remodeled in a more variable and creative fashion.



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