Mother-of-pearl spoon

Early 17th century
Mother-of-pearl; gold mountings
16.4 cm in length

A spoon made from mother-of-pearl set with gold mountings. This rare and unique Chinese spoon features a deep oval-shaped bowl made from the shell of the green turban sea snail (Turbo marmoratus), reminiscent of late sixteenth-century Gujarati examples made for export to Europe, and a masterly carved mother-of-pearl shaft made from an unusually thick shell of a pearl oyster of the Pinctada genus, most probably from a large specimen of P. maxima.

Made for export and following a European prototype from the sixteenth century - the oblong, oval bowl meets the shaft on the back with a rattail in gold pinned to the mother-of-pearl  -, the present spoon features typically Chinese motifs and imagery. The shaped top of the bowl is shaped and engraved (on both sides) after the sacred Chinese mushroom of immortality (Ganoderma lucidum), known as língzh 灵芝, also reminiscent of the head of the rúyì 如意 or sceptre, which conveys the achievement of all desires (rúyì is literally, “as desired”; , “as, like” and , “desire; will”). Also finely engraved - with traces of pigment on the design, once highlighting it -, the back features, on one side a delicate lotus-flower pond scene, with a large leaf on the centre and several lotus-flowers seen in different stages of blooming - the lotus-flower (Nelumbo nucifera), known in China as héhu  荷花 or liánhu  莲花, is the flower of summerand the symbol of truth (incorruptiblehonesty), purity, integrity and harmony, being also symbolic of Buddhism. The other side of the bowl, also masterfully engraved and highlighted in black pigment, which has now almost disappeared, features branches of the tree peony, with a large open bloom and smaller buds - the tree peony (Paeonia suf- fruticosa) or m d n 牡丹, deemed in China “the queen of flowers” is the symbol of royalty, prosperity, wealth and honour.

In the round and not unlike some late Ming rhinoceros horn carvings, the mother-of-pearl shaft is carved in the shape of a gnarled old plum branch, with some buds and a large blossom (with a round gold nail in the centre) - the Japanese apricot (Prunus mume), called méihu 梅花 in Chinese, with its typical five round petals, and being the flower of winter, symbolises beauty, purity and longevity. The precious gold mountings - the rattail attachment of the shaft to the bowl and the top cap of the finial - of a reddish hue due to the high amount of copper in the alloy, are finely chased with floral motifs on a fish-roe ground, a decorative scheme used in Chinese precious metalwork since the Tang dynasty (618- 907). This precious spoon, while apparently unique, stands as testimony to the first sumptuary works of Chinese origin to reach Europe, some of which were documented at the Lisbon court in the reign of Manuel I.


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