Ewer

China, Jingdezhen
Mid-16th century, Ming dynasty, Jiajing period (1521-1567)
Porcelain decorated in overglaze coloured enamels and gilding
23.9 x 15 x 9.6 cm
Provenance: collection of Anthony du Boulay, England

This rare pear-shaped ewer with flattened sides, peach-shaped panels, a narrow neck and short vertical rim, is modelled after a metal prototype. Of sturdy construction, it is covered in a clear, colourless glaze, except for the underside of the round foot ring which is left unglazed. The long and curved spout, which is circular in cross-section is connected to the neck by a scroll shaped strut. The round handle is square in cross-section and curves high next to the mouth and forms a straight line towards the neck. Each side of the flattened body features a raised medallion in the shape of the cintāmaṇi, the flaming pearl of Buddhism or 如意寶珠 rúyìbǎozhū, as it is known in China; literally “the precious jewel that grants wishes”. Each medallion, painted in deep iron red, would be decorated in gold, as would be the red polylobate cartouches on the neck and sides; the latter being set on an endless pearl pattern which is also painted in red over the white body of the ewer.

The moulded elements of the present ewer (the lid of which is missing) are reminiscent of the original metallic object which this porcelain version reproduces. Ceramic ewers of this shape seem to have become popular in China during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368); a Mongolian dynasty in which the Islamic influence was strongly felt in the artistic commissions emanating from the court. Several examples of this shape in metal produced in the second half of the sixteenth century survive either in cloisonné or bronze. However, the earlier examples, made entirely from gold and certainly for imperial use, date from the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644), such as a precious ewer (21.7 x 20.8 cm) and matching basin (7.1 x Ø 25.9 cm) from the Xuande period (1426-1435), finely chisel-engraved on the moulded side medallions, neck, lid and lower part of the spout, and set with gems, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (inv. 1950-118-1 and 1950-74-1); and one other, plain and undecorated (26.4 cm high), and set with its matching basin (7.5 x Ø 41 cm), found in the tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang († 1441) in Zhongxiang; or another (19.4 cm high) set with rubies and sapphires, from the Chenghua period (1464-1487) and today in the Capital Museum, Beijing.

Chinese porcelain was not an uncommon sight in late Renaissance Lisbon, since it was imported in great quantities. Particularly popular was the underglaze cobalt blue decoration and it was readily available in shops and at daily public auctions. More precious examples, such as the yellow monochrome ware usually reserved for imperial use in the Forbidden City, or blue, red and pure white ware, which was similarly used in state sacrificial ceremonies, as well as kinrande, were harder to come by, and were often smuggled out of China to Europe. Unlike the relatively few prize examples that enriched the collections of the wealthy nobility in Vienna, Florence, Innsbruck or Dresden, porcelain in sixteenth-century Lisbon was put to everyday use on account of its attractiveness and relative low price. Recent archaeological finds in Lisbon, still mostly unpublished and awaiting proper research, alongside those from Portuguese shipwrecks, enable us to form a better, more realistic idea about the widespread consumption of Chinese porcelain in the city. As an example of the types of wares available for use in Lisbon, upon his death in 1570, Simão de Melo left a vast array of porcelain to his widow, including 120 pieces of “porcelain for eating”, probably referring to dishes of medium size, plus forty large dishes, and forty dishes of various dimensions “for eating”. Alongside such pieces, Melo’s inventory records a costly basin for washing before meals “gilded, from China”, probably white glaze porcelain with kinrande gilt decoration known as “gold brocade style” in Japanese.

Ewers of this precise shape (with raised peach-shaped medallions) and of the Jiajing period are rare, and mention should be made of one (30 cm high) decorated in underglaze cobalt blue bearing an apocryphal Xuande reign mark, missing its lid from the collection of the British Museum, London (inv. Franks.748). A similarly shaped ewer of this same kinrande production (29.2 x 14 x 12.7 cm) belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. 2016.126a, b).

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