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Gifts to the City

At the end of every year, the Art Institute celebrates its “Gifts to the City”—the most recent acquisitions to the collection. You might not realize that each year we add hundreds—if not thousands—of new pieces to the museum’s permanent collection and they’re often added without much fanfare. So we take this time to celebrate these additions and the breadth and depth they contribute to the Art Institute’s holdings.

One of the pieces we're most excited to show off is this exquisitely crafted altar set which includes a tripod censer, two candlesticks, and two beaker vases. Five-piece altar sets like this one were initially used exclusively in Buddhist rituals that had been introduced to China by the 14th century, but were subsequently appropriated for both Confucian and Daoist ceremonies.

The vessels were consistently arranged in a line across the altar, with the censer in the middle and the candlesticks and vases flanking it symmetrically. During the ritual, participants would light incense and say a prayer. Only after the prayer was said would incense be placed in the censer, so the fragrance could carry the prayers skyward and communicate with deities or deceased family members. The candles were meant to shine light on ignorance and flowers were offered in the vases to symbolize ephemerality.

The Art Institute’s recently acquired set was likely made for a Buddhist or ancestral hall in one of the Qing imperial temples or palaces. Each vessel bears an inscription that identifies it as an imperial commission of the Jiaqing emperor (reigned 1796–1820), son of the mighty emperor Qianlong and a devout Buddhist. This piece is extremely rare in both its remarkable quality of surface decoration and its preservation and adds a new level to the Art Institute’s already strong collection of Chinese art.

Pick up our holiday brochure to take this year’s Gifts to the City tour, including this altar set as well as some other recent additions to the collection.

Image Credit: Altar Set, Qing dynasty, Jiaqing reign mark and period (1796–1820). China. Charles H. and Mary F. Worcester Collection Fund.