Lot 110. A blue and white stem cup, Xuande six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1426-1435); 3 ½ in. (8.8 cm.) high. Estimate GBP 60,000 - GBP 80,000 (USD 77,160 - USD 102,880) © Christie's Images Ltd 2017.
The well-proportioned cup is finely decorated to the exterior with two striding mythical winged elephants amongst ruyi-cloud scrolls above turbulent swirling waves around the base and on the unglazed sealed stem foot. The interior is undecorated except for double lines at the mouth rim.
The winged elephant yixiang or flying elephant feixiang, seen on the current stem cup, belongs to a group of animals known as the sea creatures haishou. This group of creatures, which is depicted amongst turbulent waves in the early Ming dynasty, also included winged ying dragons, celestial horses tianma, qilin, foxes, goats, lions, dogs, deer, antelope, turtles, flying fish, flying shrimps, sea molluscs, and other strange, sometimes unidentifiable, creatures.
A number of the sea creatures can be identified with those mentioned in the ancient text, Shan hai jing, which was compiled by Liu Xiang and his son Liu Xin in the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and revised by Guo Pu in the Eastern Jin period (AD 317-420), but includes material from earlier times. (In 1983 a symposium was convened in Chengdu, Sichuan province to discuss new research into the Shang hai jing, and the proceedings were published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Further Studies on the Shan Hai Jing, Sichuan, 1986, while Chen Ching-kuang of the National Palace Museum, Taipei also undertook research into the use of this motif on Chinese imperial porcelains, and a paper by her on the subject was published in 1993 - Chen Ching-kuang, 'Sea Creatures on Ming porcelains', in The Porcelains of Jingdezhen, Rosemary Scott (ed.), Colloquies on Art & Archaeology in Asia No. 16, London, 1993, pp. 101-122). The ying winged dragon, the xuan nine-tailed turtle, the tianlu heavenly deer, and others mentioned in the Shan hai jing can be identified with animals on the early Ming porcelains. These, and the other sea creatures, are all regarded as auspicious. Significantly, there was a revival of interest in the Shan hai jing during the early Ming period, and this may have encouraged the application of the sea creature motif.
While the sea creature motif may have initially been of Daoist origin, it is notable that a number of Xuande stem cups bearing this motif also bear a Sanskrit inscription on the interior. This inscription is comprised of nine character mantras – clearly linking the vessels to Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism). The National Palace Museum, Taipei, has 17 Xuande stem cups with sea creature decoration bearing such inscriptions, indicative of the importance of this theme to the court in this reign. It may be significant that the winged dragon, the elephant, the winged goat and the lion also appear on the doorways of the Porcelain Pagoda at the Bao'en Temple, built by the Yongle emperor in honour of his mother near Nanjing, as well as in other Buddhist contexts.
It is believed that the theme of sea creatures formed part of the decoration on a wall in the original Tianfeigong Temple in Nanjing, which was built in the early 15th century on the orders of the Yongle Emperor. The building is dedicated to Mazu (also known as Tianfei), the Goddess of the Sea, who was credited by Admiral Zhenghe with protecting his voyages of exploration. The Tianfeigong Temple was destroyed in 1937, but was rebuilt in 2005.
A stem bowl decorated with thirteen sea creatures, including a winged elephant, reserved in white against a ground of underglaze blue turbulent waves was excavated in 1984 from the late Yongle stratum at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen (illustrated Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong, 1989, pp. 148-149, no. 33). Also in 1984 a stem bowl decorated with thirteen sea creatures in underglaze copper red against a ground of underglaze blue turbulent waves was unearthed from the late Yongle stratum at Jingdezhen (illustrated ibid., pp. 156-157). On both these Yongle stem bowls ten sea creatures appear on the bowl of the vessel and three on the stem. As noted above, the sea creatures theme continued to be applied to imperial porcelain in the Xuande reign, and in 1984 a stem bowl decorated in underglaze copper red with sea creatures against an incised ground of turbulent waves (illustrated in Chang Foundation, Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Taipei, 1998, p. 49, no. 45-2) was excavated from the Xuande stratum at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. In 1993 a small stem cup decorated in underglaze blue with a design of sea creatures, against a background of pale blue turbulent waves, was excavated from the Xuande stratum (illustrated Chang Foundation, Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, op. cit., p. 55, no. 51-1). Both of these vessels include winged elephants amongst the sea creatures. In 1983 a small cup decorated with nine sea creatures, including a winged elephant, in underglaze copper red was excavated from the Xuande stratum at Jingdezhen (illustrated Chang Foundation, Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, op. cit., p. 99, no. 101-3).
In 1993 an imperial cricket jar decorated in underglaze blue with a design of sea creatures was excavated from the Xuande stratum at Jingdezhen (illustrated Chang Foundation, Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, op. cit., p. 68, no. 58-1). It is notable that, amongst the sea creatures on this jar, it is the flying elephants which dominate, and it is a flying elephant which appears on the lid surrounded by eight precious emblems. The dominance of the winged elephant can also be seen on a large dish decorated in underglaze blue with a design of sea creatures which was excavated in 1982 from the Xuande stratum at Jingdezhen (illustrated Chang Foundation, Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, op. cit., p. 80, no. 76). In all sixteen different sea creatures are depicted on this plate, but while the other creatures appear on the interior and exterior sides of the dish, it is a winged elephant which appears on a larger scale in the extended interior roundel. A Chenghua blue and white dish from the Qing Court collection, which bears the sea creature design, and also has a winged elephant in the internal roundel with undecorated interior walls, is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (II), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 11, no. 9). The positioning of elephants on these vessels emphasises the important place held by the elephant amongst the sea creatures. In the context of Buddhism, elephants are symbols of strength and steadfastness, and it seems possible that these elephants gain additional importance through their association with the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, Bodhisattva of Universal Benevolence. In Hinduism Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu and goddess of wealth and prosperity, is associated with an elephant, which is sometimes said to be able to invoke from the clouds winged elephants, who could fly to earth and bring rainfall. Lakshmi is also a goddess in Buddhism who can confer abundance and good fortune.
It is significant that in the early Ming dynasty, it appears that only the winged dragon – seen on vessels such as the large blue and white fish bowl or gang excavated from the Xuande stratum at the imperial kilns in 1982 (illustrated Chang Foundation, Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, op. cit., p. 14, no. 4), who was associated with rainfall, and the winged elephant, who may also have been associated with rain, amongst the winged sea creatures, seem to be depicted alone on imperial porcelain vessels. Winged horses do not appear alone on porcelains until later in the dynasty. The dragon and the elephant – both associated with the bringing of rain – would have had particular resonance for the emperor, who, was always concerned that there should be rain to water the crops in order to ensure a good harvest and prevent famine.
A pair of blue and white Xuande stem cups of identical size and shape to the current cup, and decorated with the same design of flying elephants amongst clouds and above the waves is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (illustrated in Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, pp. 210-211, no. 78). The National Palace Museum also has in its collection two stem cups decorated with the nine sea creatures, including the winged elephant – one with the creatures in underglaze cobalt blue against a background of overglaze iron red waves and the other with the sea creatures reserved in white against a background of underglaze blue waves (illustrated Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, op. cit., pp. 222-223, no. 84, and pp. 234-235, no. 90, respectively). A further Xuande blue and white stem cup of the same size, shape and decoration as the current cup, from the collection of Sir Percival David (PDF B638) is illustrated in The World’s Great Collections - Oriental Ceramics, vol. 6 Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, 1982, monochrome plate 96.
The current rare stem cup is decorated with the brilliant cobalt blue and powerful painting style characteristic of the finest imperial porcelains of the Xuande reign.