Porcelain ewer

China, Jingdezhenca. 1522-1566; Ming dynasty, Jiajing mark and period
Porcelain decorated in overglaze cobalt blue; gilt copper mountings, enamel and gems
27 x 11.5 x 18 cm

This rare pear-shaped ewer with flattened sides, peach-shaped panels, a narrow neck and short vertical rim, is modelled after a metallic prototype. Sturdily potted, it is covered in a clear, colourless glaze, except for the underside of the round footring which was left unglazed. On the underside, the four-character Jiajing reign mark (Ji jìng nián zhì 嘉靖年製) is painted in cobalt blue under the glaze inside a double, circular border. The long and curved spout, circular in cross-section, would have been connected to the neck by a scroll shaped strut.The round handle, which is also missing, was possibly square in cross-section, and would have curved high next to the mouth and broken into a straight line towards the neck not unlike surviving examples of a similar form. The mounts are one of the most interesting features of this rare ewer. Made from fire gilt copper using an amalgam of gold and mercury, these are enamelled and set with gems (turquoise and coral) and some substitutes such as coloured glass. Replacing the lost handle and the spout finial, the mountings also decorate, like a rich frame, the body of the ewer around the spout. Both the presence of filigree, the shape of gem-setting collets and the colourful enamels point to a likely Iranian origin from the mid-seventeenth century, a Safavid production of which so little can be known for certain.
 All the moulded elements including the ring on top of the handle that would have connected to a similar ring on top of the stepped cover, and are now 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 from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), a Mongolian dynasty in which the Islamic influence was strongly felt in the artistic commissions 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, set with gems, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (inv. nos. 1950-118-1 and 1950- 74-1); one other, all plain and undecorated (26.4 cm high) 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.

The rich hue of the cobalt blue used in the decoration of this rare ewer is typical of the porcelain produced during the Jiajing period. Each side of the flattened body features a raised medallion in the shape of the cint ma i, the flaming pearl of Buddhism or rúyìb ozh 如意寶珠, as it is known in China, literally “the precious jewel that grants wishes”. Each medallion is decorated with a shrub peony (Paeonia lactiflora) with its characteristic composite, lobed leaves. Of the remaining painted decoration, the stylized lotus flowers and scrolls, known as b oxi nghu 宝 相花, stand out.

Ewers and basins played an important role in the ceremonial life of early modern European courts, namely in Portugal, where they were used for the ceremonial ablution of the hands or “água-às-mãos” before and after the serving of meals. Washing sets, namely in silver, were usually the grandest items on display on stepped sideboards, credenzas and tables set near the dining table. A taste for precious silver ewers in noble and princely households throughout Europe, and new-found possibilities of having them made from porcelain under commission directly to China, led to the emergence of objects such as the present ewer. Although not exactly of the same shape, without the raised medallions and featuring a garlic-shaped mouth, mention should be made of an important ewer also from the Jiajing period (mark and period) decorated in overglaze cobalt blue with the arms of the Peixoto family, attributed to Lopo Peixoto, and today in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, inv. no. C.222-1931.

Ewers of this precise shape (with raised peach-shaped medallions) and of the Jiajing period are rare, and mention should be made of the following: one (30 cm high) decorated in overglaze cobalt blue bearing an apocryphal Xuande reign mark, missing its lid (replaced with Islamic brass mounts) from the collection of the British Museum, London, inv. no. Franks.748; another (26.2 cm high, without the lid) with raised medallions left in biscuit featuring carved, openwork decoration with traces of polychromy and gilding, also from the British Museum, inv. no. 1928.0718.1; and a third one (21.9 cm high, without the lid) decorated with phoenixes and stylized lotus flowers on the raised medallions, from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. no. C.109-1928. Matching in shape and featuring Daoist iconography, a decoration favoured by the emperor Jiajing, mention should also be made of a ewer (23.2 cm high, without the lid) decorated in overglaze cobalt blue from the Jiajing to Wanli period which was recently sold (lot 822) at Chris- tie’s in New York, 18-19 September 2014.


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