Mounted porcelain ewer

China, Jingdezhen; probably Iran (the mounts)
ca. 1572-1620; Ming dynasty, Wanli period; 17th century (the mounts)
Porcelain decorated in overglaze cobalt blue; parcel-gilt silver mountings
35 x 12 x 14 cm

A porcelain ewer decorated in overglaze cobalt blue fitted with parcel-gilt silver mountings. This rare and important hexagonal ewer, raised on a tall six-sided waisted foot, has a six-sided pear-shaped body and a tall neck with flaring rim. The high six-sided spout rises to the height of the rim, while the side handle, opposite to the spout, now lost, has been replaced by one in parcel silver gilt, not unlike the cover and the spout finial, all in parcel-gilt silver and replacing lost parts (the bracket which connected the spout to the neck is also missing). The intense cobalt blue decoration comprises: an interlaced vegetal band on the upper section of the foot, and fire-cloud motifs alternating with six-petalled flowers on the lower section; a lappet border on the shoulder and alternating flowering branches and fruit (tree peonies, pomegranates, peach, etc) on the six sides of the body; cranes and fire-cloud motifs on the lower section of the neck, also decorated with decorative bands on the upper section, one of plantain leaves. Modelled after a metal prototype, ewers following this shape are very rare, with examples known not only in porcelain but also on carved lacquer (the coats applied to a metal core). One matching porcelain ewer (31.1 cm in height), bearing a similar “fu” auspicious mark (富) typical of Wanli period porcelain, belongs to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and is fitted with German gilt metal mountings.

Regardless of the rarity of a porcelain ewer of this shape, the most interesting aspect of the present piece resides in the parcel-gilt silver mountings. They comprise the round-section hollow handle, decorated on the front (the inner side left undecorated) with a scale-like frieze of alternating lobed sections or “scales” in gilt and white silver which are decorated with stylised, formalised flowering branches. The spout finial, set with a bulbous-shaped six-sided terminal (decorated with flowers), has a spiralled design alternating geometric narrow bands in gilt with floral wider bands in white silver. The same interchange is seen on the six-sided dome-shaped cover, with panels decorated with large formalised flowering branches - a dog rose in the centre (Rosa canina, a species indigenous to Iran, the rose being a national flower), daffodils (Narcissus L.), tulips (possibly the indigenous Tulipa micheliana), and thistles (most probably, given the depiction, the indigenous Carduus nutans) - on a ground of close-set horizontal lines in white silver, alternating with a silver gilt circular medallion with a quatrefoil on a diaper ground, on a palmette design in white silver. While the cover is set with a lobed Greek cross (or simply a quatrefoil) on top, the neck rim is lined with a lobed silver band.

Although not immediately recognised as Islamic in style, the finely chisel engraved decoration (chased with wedged chasing tools) betrays its Iranian origin in the floral motifs, geometric diaper pattern, lobed design of the silver spout when it meets the porcelain body, and also the pearled mouldings on the cover. The latter, highlighted with twisted wire on the edges, and typical of Iranian precious metalwork and filigree since time immemorial, are known as magrool in the closely related Yemenite filigree tradition and usually made with steel dies, while the twisted wire is called sahber.  This same beaded wire may be seen on the silver mounts around the neck of this Safavid fritware bottle, made in Iran around 1630-1670 copying a Late Ming dynasty Chinese porcelain bottle.  The geometric pattern design used for the ground of the trefoil circular medallions, forming crosses which are more clearly visible in the micrographs, may be found in Safavid fritware decorated in overglaze ruby-coloured lustre, such as this bowl from the second half of the seventeenth century which features five lobed medallions, framing a peacock decorated with a similar diaper pattern - it is curious to note that the same type of formalised flowering branch is also used on this bowl, alternating with the diaper medallions.

While mostly identified today with northern Indian designs, formalised flowering branches, - the so-called Mughal “floral style” which, although largely associated with Shah Jahan’s reign (r. 1528-1558), was gradually developed during the reigns of Akbar (r. 1556- 1605) and Jahangir (r. 1605-1627), and which consists of flowering plants naturally depicted in profile against a plain background and formally arranged in rows - are a staple of Safavid designs, namely of textiles. This length of silk velvet with formalised flowering tulips and butterflies produced in Isfahan for the court in the seventeenth century stands as a good testimony of such designs.

The survival of so few examples of Safavid precious metalwork, namely of silver objects made for the imperial court of which the present ewer would be a candidate, prevents a firmer attribution to the parcel-gilt silver mountings on our rare Chinese porcelain ewer of the late sixteenth century. More complex in its floral decoration, and more unrestrained in composition possibly because of its later date, mention should be made of this tinned copper ewer from the first half of the eighteenth century. Probably of Iranian manufacture, our ewer could have been used by a Christian community given the lobed cross atop the cover, decorated with fine floral motifs on the terminal - if not a non-religious symbol and a mere lobed quatrefoil as seen in the gilded medallions of the cover -, albeit the total lack of any other religious imagery. Not unlike a highly important cope or shurjar with Christian imagery (the Annunciation and the Crucifixion) in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no. 477-1894,T.30-1926,T.211-1930) - woven as a carpet with a very fine silk pile, now in a fragmentary state and with traces of weaved inscriptions in Armenian on the orphrey - dating from around 1605 and made in Isfahan for a Christian community in Safavid Iran, possibly the Armenian colony settled by Shah Abbas (r. 1588-1629) at New Julfa, Isfahan, in 1605, our present ewer might have been intended for the same community.


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