Lot 17

A very rare sancai-glazed pottery phoenix-head ewer, China, Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) 2

Lot 17. A very rare sancai-glazed pottery phoenix-head ewer, China, Tang dynasty (AD 618-907); 13 ½ in. (34.3 cm.) highEstimate $100,000 – $150,000Price realised USD 437,000. © Christie's Image Ltd 2015

The ovoid body relief-decorated with a hunting scene depicting an equestrian chasing a fox and two deer, the scene set between bands of palmettes, the handle molded as the stem of a blossoming bell-flower which cups the back of a phoenix head, with open beak that grasps a small sphere and forms the spout.

Provenance: The Collection of Robert H. Ellsworth, New York, acquired in Hong Kong, 1990.

Notes This magnificent and rare ewer is a fine example of the successful melding of inter-cultural creative traditions – combining Chinese artistry and technology with inspiration provided by the arts of the Islamic West. In the late 6th century the Sui dynasty Yangdi Emperor (AD 569-618) opened diplomatic relations with the Sasanian Persian Empire (AD 224-651). While the main purpose of this diplomatic initiative was to stimulate trade, while also enlisting the help of Sasanians in keeping at bay the increasingly powerful nomadic tribes from the north and west, it would also have a profound effect on Chinese culture – especially the decorative arts and music. Amongst the Sasanian arts most admired by the Chinese was metalwork, and indeed metalwork from that region had been famous long before the Sasanian period – the Achemenid (550–330 BC) and Parthian (247 BC – AD 224) Empires were also known for their fine metalwork. From the late 6th century, however, fine gold and silver vessels, along with a number of Persian craftsmen entered the Tang capital Chang’an (modern Xi’an) and provided inspiration for Chinese craftsmen working in a range of media. One of the areas in which this inspiration can be seen is 8th century Chinese earthenwares, often with sancai (three colour) lead-fluxed glazes. One of the forms which gained especial popularity was the high-footed ewer.

While its overall shape is clearly inspired by Sasanian metalwork forms, several features of the current ewer continue Chinese traditions. Bird-heads had been used on Chinese vessels made at the Yue kilns as early as the Six Dynasties period (AD 220–589), but by the Sui dynasty (AD 581-618) elaborate bird’s heads with hawk-like beaks were already appearing on Chinese ceramic vessels. An example of a 6th-7th century celadon-glazed ewer with such a head, which is decorated with sprig-moulded roundel containing western figures and other imported features, is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 31 -Porcelain of the Jin and Tang Dynasties, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 186-7, no. 172). In addition, there are several aspects of this ewer which set it apart from the more commonly found Tang sancai phoenix-head ewers. Firstly, many such ewers have bodies which are both somewhat pear-shaped – as are the Sasanian metalwork ewers - and slightly flattened; having been made using moulds and luted vertically (see for example the ewer excavated at Sanqiao, Xi’an in 1959, illustrated in Treasures from Changan: Capital of the Silk Road, Hong Kong, 1993, no. 30). The body of this ewer, however, is virtually spherical, and reflects the Tang potter’s skill in throwing this form. Also, while it is not unusual to have a slightly raised torque around the shoulder of a vessel which has its origins in metalwork, this vessel has a complementary raised band around the lower part of the spherical body. Instead of the more usual splashed effects, the decorator has used the glaze colors to effectively highlight both these raised bands by giving them a cream base color while the leaf, or palmette, motifs are green, in contrast to the main area of the body which has an amber glaze. 

The second area of the ewer which contrasts with the majority of phoenix-head ewers is the handle. While a number of the handles of such ewers are of plant form, these are not usually particularly naturalistic and the flower on the stem most frequently forms the opening at the top of the vessel. On this ewer, however, the bell of the flower cups the back of the phoenix’s head. Thirdly, it is rare to find a well-formed sphere held in the bird’s beak, which itself is not normally so realistically rendered. The intricacies of both the bird’s head and the floral handle are also exceptionally detailed. The choice of flower for the handle is both unusual and interesting since versions of this type of bell flower can also be seen on early Chinese embroideries such as the 3rd century BC embroidered silk covering for a woolen felt saddle blanket excavated from kurgan 5 at Pazyryk, in the Altai region of south-western Siberia (illustrated by Sergei I. Rudenko in Frozen Tombs of Siberia: the Pazyryk Burials of Iron Age Horsemen, (translated by M. W. Thompson), Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1970, pp. 174-178, pl. 178), and the Warring States embroidered robe excavated in 1982 from a tomb at Mashan in Hebei province (illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji gongyi meishu bian 6  yin ran zhi xiu (xia), Beijing, 1985, pp. 30-1, no. 24). It is not a flower that often appears in ceramics.

Links with fine silks can also be seen in other aspects of the design of this ewer, although their origins can, in both cases be traced to Sasanian silver. Naturalistically depicted birds and distinctive clouds, similar to those above the equestrian figures on the current ewer, can be seen woven into a piece of Tang dynasty polychrome brocade excavated in 1968 at Astana in Xinjiang (illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji gongyi meishu bian 6  yin ran zhi xiu (xia),op. cit., pp. 166-7, no. 157). A hunting scene with equestrian huntsmen, chasing their quarry through landscape elements accompanied by birds and similarly-shaped clouds, appears on a Tang dynasty printed silk gauze, also excavated in 1982 at Astana (illustrated ibid., p. 143, no. 132). 

As Jessica Rawson has noted, palmette borders such as those seen on the current ewer can trace their origins back to Greek vases (see J. Rawson, Chinese Ornament: The Lotus and the Dragon, London, 1984, p. 215), but this inspiration would almost certainly have entered the Chinese potters’ repertoire via Persian metalwork, on which the design sometimes appears as s band around the shoulder of pear-shaped vessels. The formal shrubs over which the riders jump in the main band on the current ewer also have their origins in Persian metalwork, but a close look at the rocky outcrops which rise from the base line of the main decorative band between the riders reveals a relief similarity to the three-dimensional form of the so-called boshanlu magic mountain’ censers of the Han dynasty.

While the object held by the equestrian has previously been described as a sling, two other interpretations should also be considered. If the equestrian figure is indeed a huntsman, then the long pole with a loop on the end, which he brandishes with such fervour, may be a snare rather than a sling. A sling is shown on the Astana printed gauze discussed above, and the shape differs markedly from the article held by the riders on this ewer. The third possibility is that the rider is a polo player and that the stick he holds aloft is a polo stick. As can be seen from the mural on the west wall of the entrance corridor of' the AD 706 tomb of Li Xian (the crown prince Zhanghuai), near Xianyang, Shaanxi province, polo players at the Tang capital of the 8th century played using a long, slender, stick with a curled - although not looped - end (illustrated in Tang Lixuan mu bihua, Beijing, 1974, pl. 15). Like horse racing, polo has been called ‘the sport of kings’ and was introduced into China, probably by the Xianbei tribes of the north, at some time between the 3rd and 6th centuries. Polo became very popular with the Chinese elite and was played by both men and women. An interestingly similar scene to that depicted on the ewer can be seen on the exterior of one lobe of an eight-lobed, ring-handled gilt-silver cup excavated in 1970 from an 8th century hoard at Hejiacun in the southern suburbs of Xi’an, Shaanxi province (illustrated by Dayton Art Institute in The Glory of the Silk Road  Art from Ancient China, Dayton, Ohio, 2003, p. 195, no. 104. However, it is clear that the scene on the gilt-silver cup is intended to depict hunting.

The horses on this ewer are shown in the position known as the ‘flying gallop’ – with both forelegs and back legs outstretched, a configuration that is not known in real horses, but which has been used by artists from different cultures for centuries in order to convey the impression of speed. The fact of this being an artistic impression, rather than an accurate portrayal, of a horse’s gallop was finally proved by the English photographer Eadweard James Muybridge, who in 1877 and 1878, using multiple cameras, produced sequential photographs of a horse galloping. Even then some viewers did not believe the photographs could be accurate. The subject, as applied to Chinese art, was first addressed by Berthold Laufer in his book Chinese Pottery of the Han Dynasty, Leyden, 1909.

This handsome ewer is thus not only a Tang dynasty vessel made by a craftsman of consummate skill, it also reflects a range of sources of inspiration and is worthy of detailed art historical study.

The result of Oxford thermoluminesence test no. 566r79 is consistent with the dating of this lot.