A rare blue and white porcelain archaïstic vase, China, Ming Dynasty, Wanli mark and period (1573-1619)

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Lot 67. Rare vase archaïsant en porcelaine bleu blanc, Chine, Dynastie Ming, marque et époque Wanli (1573-1619); 96 cm, 37 7/8 in. Estimate 200,000-300,000 EUR. Lot sold 240,750 EUR. Photo Sotheby's 2011

de forme gu, le corps globulaire entre le col et le pied évasé, agrémenté de six rangées d'arêtes crênelées décorées de fleurettes, le col flanqué d'anses en têtes d'animaux fabuleux, à décor de dragons et phénix affrontés intercalés de rinceaux fleuris et entrelacs, le col souligné d'une frise de ruyi et agrémenté d'une marque horizontale à six caractères dans un cartouche rectangulaire au col, l'intérieur à décor de palmettes et motifs géométriques, le pied souligné d'une frise de grecques.

A rare blue and white porcelain archaïstic vase, China, Ming Dynasty, Wanli mark and period (1573-1619)

Provenance: Acquired from an antiquarian in Munich by the father of the present owner.

An Imperial Commission for a Buddhist Altar.
Regina Krahl

This extravagant imperial temple vase of the Wanli reign (1573-1620) is one of the largest Chinese porcelain vases ever made during China's dynastic period. Commissions by the court of major temple vases were highly unusual. Whereas sizeable vessels for practical use, such as large chargers, immense fish bowls and massive jars had been made to imperial order already in the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and were still much in demand at the Jiajing court (1522-66), temple vases did not figure among significant imperial commissions.

The most famous temple vases that are preserved – impressive though they unquestionably are – are all considerably smaller than the present example and, more importantly, they do not represent imperial orders, but were commissioned by commoners. This is true for the most outstanding pieces of the Yuan dynasty, the blue-and-white 'David vases' of 1351 (63.6 cm high), and a Longquan celadon vase of 1327 (measuring 72 cm), as well as for those of the Ming, like a Longquan celadon example dated to 1454 (69 cm) and a blue-and-white vase of 1496 (62.1 cm), all in the Sir Percival David Collection and illustrated in Sheila Riddell, Dated Chinese Antiquities 600-1650, London, 1979, pls. 62, 9, 14, 64. Temple vases made for the court prior to the Wanli period are rare and much smaller; compare, for example a blue-and-white piece of Zhengde mark and period (1506-1521) in the same collection, 45 cm high, illustrated in Daisy Lion-Goldschmidt, La Porcelaine Ming, Fribourg, 1978, pl. 105.

The Wanli period experienced a strong revival of Buddhism and unprecedented imperial patronage of Buddhist causes. The Wanli Emperor has gone down in history as a weak and negligent ruler and has often been deemed responsible for the demise of the dynasty. While in his later years he indeed notoriously neglected the affairs of state – due perhaps at least partly to a medical condition –, for many decades the Wanli reign was a very prosperous period. It was a great era of trade and production, when society was affluent, new crops were introduced from the Americas to feed the rapidly increasing population, great literary works were created, such as Xiyouji ('Journey to the West') and Jinpingmei ('Plum in a Golden Vase'), and the tolerance of the activities of Matteo Ricci and other Jesuits is testimony to a certain openness to new scientific ideas.

The Wanli Emperor was enthroned at the age of nine and during his infancy the state was controlled jointly by his mother, Lishi (1546-1614), the Grand Secretary, Zhang Juzheng, and the chief eunuch, Feng Bao. Lishi, a consort of the Longqing Emperor (r. 1567-1572), who after her son's enthronisation received the title Empress Dowager Cisheng, remained highly influential at court throughout her life.

Being a fervent believer, Cisheng, who also titled herself Nine-Lotus-Bodhisattva (Jiulian Pusa), granted imperial patronage to Buddhist monasteries on a significant scale and commissioned the construction or restoration of many Buddhist temples, at a level that caused financial concern to the Grand Secretary. Her generosity for Buddhist causes increased when the Emperor was granted his first son, after she had ordered a mass congregation of monks and laymen, who assembled in 1581/2 at the Tayuan Temple on mount Wutai in Shanxi, to pray for a male heir.

The Tayuan Temple itself had been restored under her auspices and this congregation had been called into being by the Chan Buddhist monk Fudeng (1540-1613), who was famous for his devout activities, was already backed by one of the imperial princes and henceforth became one of Cisheng's particular protégés. During the Wanli reign he erected or restored many temple buildings with moneys from the imperial treasury, in particular on mount Emei in Sichuan and mount Wutai, but also at various other locations (fig. 1). He became renowned as an architect and civil engineer for his building style characterized by beamless brick constructions (wuliang dian). His most ambitious project was the erection of three Bronze Halls (tong dian) for the three Bodhisattvas on three of the holy mountains: one for Guanyin on Putuoshan, an island off Zhejiang province (eventually built on Baohuashan in Jiangsu instead); one for Wenshu on Wutaishan; and one for Puxian on Emeishan.

These important, newly built or rehabilitated Buddhist temples and shrines clearly needed to be furnished, and altar vases were equally required for Buddhist worship within the Imperial palaces, and for donations to worthy Buddhist clerics, such as the monk Biechuan, whose pious deeds were lavishly rewarded with Buddhist accoutrements by the Emperor and his mother, when he visited the capital. In light of this dedicated Buddhist patronage by the imperial family, the commission of temple vases of unprecedented grandeur from the imperial porcelain kilns of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province should not be surprising.

The Wanli period was the last great reign and the last period of imperial porcelain production in the Ming dynasty, and the affairs of state are echoed in the fate of the imperial kilns, which experienced a last flowering in the late 1500s.

The Wanli court was notorious for its exorbitant expenses, and its large orders of porcelain and cloisonné became associated with the country's later economic problems. To fulfil the required quota, even private kilns were at times recruited to supply some of the less complex porcelains. The production of a tour-de-force such as this vase, however, would undoubtedly have remained for the imperial factories to accomplish; even there such a feat was rarely satisfactorily completed.

The Palace Museum, Beijing, owns a somewhat smaller (76.5 cm) octafoil blue-and-white temple vase without flanges and animal masks, painted with auspicious animals, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (II), Hong Kong, 2000, pl. 173 (fig. 2), where it is stated that this innovative beaker is superior to any of the traditional flower vases and was made to be placed before the Buddha in the Imperial House.

In the Wanli reign the imperial manufactories produced comparable vases in various forms and designs, with circular, hexagonal or square bodies, with and without flanges, painted in underglaze-blue or polychrome enamels, with dragons only, dragons and phoenixes, auspicious animals or flowers – probably reflecting identity and rank of the patron commissioning it. Complete examples are nevertheless extremely rare.

One very similar vase, fractionally smaller, was offered by Vanderven & Vanderven Oriental Art, The Netherlands, in 2000, decorated with pairs of dragons rather than dragons and phoenixes, with the central part of the beaker more angular, and the reign mark centred on a flange, while on the present vase it is centred on one of the panels around the centre and the animal masks are instead aligned with flanges.

A similar blue-and-white vase decorated with lotus scrolls only, from the J. Love collection, is published in R.L.Hobson, The Wares of the Ming Dynasty, London, 1923, pl. 31, fig. 2. Three related Wanli temple vases are in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, see Idemitsu Bijutsukan zhin zuroku. Chgoku tji/Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987, pls 743, 741 and 203: a blue-and-white dragon-decorated piece without flanges, a polychrome flower-decorated one with flanges, and a polychrome dragon-and-phoenix vase without flanges, all with more angular centre. A pair of polychrome dragon-and-phoenix vases with flanges in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is published in Warren E. Cox, The Book of Pottery and Porcelain, New York, 1944, pl. 143 top right.

* Significant information for this essay has been drawn from L. Carrington Goodrich and Chaoying Fang, eds, Dictionary of Ming Biography 1368-1644, New York and London, 1976; and James Morris Hargett, Stairway to Heaven. A Journey to the Summit of Mount Emei, Albany, 2006.

Sotheby's. Arts D'Asie. Paris, 15 Dec 2011