An Ancestral Altar has an important role in the spiritual life of Vietnamese people. It is most commonly positioned in a central location of the family home, in which ancestral tablets are placed in remembrance of the family’s ancestors.

This well-preserved Ancestral Altar was donated by Mr. Pham Hong Ngoc’s family (18B Ly Thai To, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi) to the Hanoi Museum in 2020. It is over a century old representing four generations of use and features the artistic style of the late Nguyen period of the early 20th century.

The altar is: 125cm high, 61cm wide and 120cm long and made of wood from the jackfruit tree. It consists of three parts: top, body and base. The top is lacquered, gilded and carved with a stylized dragon and phoenix. The dragon has a big head and a long body and combines with the phoenix to form perfect balance.

In the middle of the altar, the Chinese words “God 神 and Host 主” have the meaning to worship for four or more generations: Great-Great Grandfather, Great-Grandfather, Grandfather, Father. The words: “Respect 尊, Place 所, and Reverence 敬” are indicative of a place of reverence. The decoration in the ancestral worshipping space is designed to pay homage and gratitude for the merits and achievements of the family’s ancestors. When selecting an Ancestral Altar, attention to color and durability are important to create a harmonious, balanced and sacred space.

The altar’s body is designed as a small house with a door and an empty space inside. The door arch is decorated with bunches of grapes to create a stylized pattern. The door arch is decorated with lemon blossoms, tigers and three Chinese characters “Respect 尊, Place 所, and Reverence 敬”. The above is designed in the form of a book embossed with the stylized lotus, chrysanthemums and apricot. The outermost sides are in the shape of a brush - decorated with a stylized apricot flower, the brush head is in a shape of a lotus flower. The Altar is majestically lacquered and gilded in vermilion and gold.

The base is square, with 4 legs, and decorated with patterns on the front and sides, the back is plain. The front of the base is decorated with stylized chrysanthemums and a tiger holding the Chinese word 寿 (longevity) in its mouth – which has the meaning “drinking the elixir of immortality”. The image of the tiger added with the word 寿 in Vietnamese art is a form of Vietnamese worship culture - a tiger symbolizes sufficiency, sustainability, sacredness to exorcise evils, and protect owners. Each of the four legs of the base are embossed with the head of a tiger.


Nguyễn Bá Ánh