A rare blue and white 'Double vajra ' dish, Ming dynasty, 15th century





Lot 7. A rare blue and white 'Double vajra ' dish, Ming dynasty, 15th century; 6 ¾ in. (17.3 cm.) diam. Estimate GBP 50,000 - GBP 80,000 (USD 69,750 - USD 111,600)Price realised GBP 81,250. © Christie’s Images Limited 2018.

The interior of the dish is painted with two beribboned vajra conjoined with a flower head. The exterior is decorated with lotus blooms and foliate scrolls.

ProvenanceSotheby's Hong Kong, 30 October 2002, lot 278.

A Rare ‘Double-vajra’ Dish 
Rosemary Scott, Senior International Academic Consultant

Although unmarked, it is most probable that this dish with its unctuous glaze, fine body and soft, well-painted cobalt blue decoration dates to the Chenghua reign. A somewhat simpler double-vajra and ribbon design can be seen on the interior of a blue and white dish, in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, which, like the current dish, is unmarked (illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (II), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 35, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 9, no. 7). However, while the exterior of the current vessel is decorated with elegantly scrolling lotus, the Beijing dish has four kuidragons. A dish with double vajra on the interior, which is similar to the Beijing dish, was excavated at the Ming imperial kilns from the late Chenghua stratum and is illustrated in The Emperors broken china Reconstructing Chenghua porcelain, London, 1995, p. 77, no. 102. Additionally, the fluttering ribbons that form part of the design on the current dish, bear a close resemblance to those on a dish decorated with lions playing with brocaded balls, which was excavated from the late Chenghua stratum at the Ming imperial kilns – illustrated in A Legacy of Chenghua: Imperial Porcelain of the Chenghua Reign Excavated from Zhushan, Jingdezhen, Hong Kong, 1993, pp. 226-7, no. C69

The double vajra motif appears to have entered the Chinese repertoire of porcelain designs with the increased popularity of Lamaism – Tibetan Buddhism - in the Yuan dynasty. As early as 1207 Ghengis Khan sent envoys to Tibet, and a system developed so that Tibet accepted Mongol protection and suzerainty while providing the Mongols with spiritual guidance. In 1239, however, a Mongol army under Koden, second son of Ogodai Khan attacked Tibet, and the Tibetans decided to negotiate. The result was that Tibet submitted to the Mongols and the latter appointed the abbot of the Sa-skya monastery to exercise political authority over the whole of Tibet. The magic of Tantric Buddhism appealed to the Mongols and when they were initiated into the practices of Lamaism they began to adopt that type of Buddhism to take the place of their own Shamanism. When he took over the great Khanate in 1260, Khublai Khan made Lamaism the national religion of the Mongols. 

After the Mongols established the Yuan dynasty in China in 1279, Lamaism flourished, receiving huge grants of land from the ruling house and the nobility. In 1291 some 42,318 temples are recorded and 213,418 monks and nuns. The lamas enjoyed a very special position of privilege and protection. It is not surprising, therefore, to find the influence of Lamaism on the arts of China during the Yuan dynasty. This included the translation of the Tibetan Tripitaka not only into Mongolian (in Wuzong’s reign 1308-11), but also into Chinese - and indeed into Tangut for the Xi Xia region, and examples of Tibetan Buddhist iconography appeared on objects in a variety of media made for the Yuan court. These included motifs such as the double vajra, which is seen on blue and white porcelain of the period. Significantly, one of the weiqi boxes decorated with a horned, five-clawed dragon, excavated from the Yuan stratum at the Jingdezhen kilns, has a double vajra on the top of its lid (illustrated in 景德鎮出土元明官窯瓷器 Jingdezhen chutu Yuan Ming guan yao ciqi, Beijing, 1999, p. 68, no. 2, while a double vajra can also be seen in the central medallion on the interior of a large blue and white bowl in the collection of the Idemitsu Museum, illustrated in Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987, colour plate 140. The influence of Lamaism on the porcelains made for the Yuan court, came not only from the interests of the Mongols themselves, but from the Tibetan and Nepalese craftsmen who held high positions at the imperial porcelain kiln at Jingdezhen. The famous Nepalese craftsman Anige (1245-1306) was appointed head of the imperial workshops in 1278. 

In the Ming dynasty a number of the Chinese emperors of had a genuine interest in Lamaist Buddhism, but they also patronized Lamaism as a way of maintaining control over both the Tibetans and the Mongols, through the support of the powerful high lamas. When the first Ming emperor, Hongwu (1368-98), came to the throne he was concerned that there should be no repetition of the conflict between China and Tibet that had occurred in Tang times. He therefore sent an envoy to the Karma-pa abbots who controlled the Kham region and south-eastern Tibet asking those who had held office under the Yuan dynasty to come to Nanjing for re-investiture. The Yongle emperor (1402-24) also sent a mission to Tibet the famous hierach Halima (De-bzin-gsegs-pa 1384-1415) to come to Nanjing. Halima first sent a tribute mission and then came to the Ming court himself in the spring of 1407. The Yongle emperor also invited the hierarch of the Sa-skya-pa to the court at Nanjing in 1413 and also tried to bring the famous leader of the Yellow Sect (Tsong-kha-pa) to Nanjing in 1407. Other Tibetan leaders were also brought to the Imperial court and all were treated with great honour and showered with gifts, thus preventing any one sect from using Chinese patronage to establish political hegemony.

The Yongle Emperor involved both Tibetan and Nepalese craftsmen in the building of his new palace in Beijing. He also involved them in the running of the imperial workshops, as had the previous Mongol dynasty. Their influence can clearly be seen in the works such as exquisite gilt-bronze Buddhist figures in Tibeto-Chinese style made during this reign. These pieces and those of the succeeding Xuande period (1426-35) were made with reign marks and were for ritual use by the imperial household or as gifts from the emperor to high Tibetan lamas favoured by the Chinese court. A number of these gilt bronze figures held double vajras – for example the gilt bronze Bodhisattva Vajrapani in the Rietberg Museum, Zurich (illustrated by Helmut Uhlig in On the Path to Enlightenment  The Berti Aschmann Foundation of Tibetan Art at the Museum Rietberg Zurich, Zurich, 1995, pp. 106-7, no. 59), who holds a vajra, which is his attribute, in his right hand. This figure was made in the imperial workshops in Beijing and bears a Yongle bestowal mark. A magnificent Xuande blue and white porcelain lidded jar with horizontal flanges and several Lamaist inscriptions is preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, and is illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 34, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 115, no. 109. In the Xuande reign the number of Tibetan lamas who came to reside in the monasteries in the capital rose to record numbers, so much so that at the beginning of the Zhengtong period (1436-49), 691 of them were sent home, and soon after that the Minister of Rites requested that a further 450 be removed, but the emperor would not allow forcible repatriation. 

In the reign of the Chenghua emperor (1465-87) there were 437 Tibetan monks holding high rank and 789 lamas, who could enter the court freely. In the early years of the Chenghua reign the emperor’s advisers became concerned by his preoccupation with Buddhism and the amount spent by the emperor in connection with it, that they suggested a sharp reduction in his perceived support of Buddhism. This appears to have been adopted for the middle part of his reign, but his resumption of expressed interest in Buddhism can clearly be seen through the arts produced in the latter years of the Chenghua reign. Among these the ceramics made at the imperial kiln provide a good indication of the incorporation of Buddhist motifs, including Tibetan Buddhist motifs, on porcelains made for the court. In addition to the dishes which bear double vajra motifs – such as the current dish and the others discussed above - a number of blue and white porcelains made for the Chenghua court were decorated with Lamaist inscriptions, such as the dish with Lamaist inscriptions on both interior and exterior 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, vol. 35, op. cit., p. 20, no. 18. Lamaist inscriptions also appear on Chenghua vessels decorated in doucai style, such as the small doucai cup with scrolling lotus and Sanskrit characters, which was excavated from the late Chenghua stratum at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, illustrated in A Legacy of Chenghua  Imperial Porcelain of the Chenghua Reign Excavated from Zhushan, Jingdezhen, op. cit., pp. 290-1, no. C101.

Note: Compare this to a similar example from the collection of Sir John Addis, illustrated by Jessica Harrison-Hall in Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, no. 6:10.

Porcelain dish with underglaze blue decoration, Ming dynasty, Chenghua period (1465-1487), 3.9 x 17.8 cm, from the collection of Sir John Addis, 1975,1028.20 © 2017 Trustees of the British Museum

Porcelain dish with underglaze blue decoration, Ming dynasty, Chenghua period (1465-1487), 3.9 x 17.8 cm, from the collection of Sir John Addis, 1975,1028.20 © 2017 Trustees of the British Museum

Harrison-Hall 2001:
This type of dragon is typical of the Chenghua era. A slightly smaller dish with a diameter of 15.8 cm but with identical decoration, also unmarked, was excavated from the late Chenghua strata at Jingdezhen. A covered jar with a 天 'tian' mark, also excavated from the Chenghua imperial reject pile at Jingdezhen, shows similar dragons pursuing flowers. Addis suggests that this type of monster is associated with the double vajra in Tibetan lamaism. It appears carved in stone above the main entrance of the Jin Gangbaozuo pagoda at the Zhenjue temple, better known as Wuta si, outside the Xizhimen, Beijing, dated ninth year of Chenghua (1473). The crossed vajra design common in Tibetan metal work is also associated with Tibetan lamaism. This dish was probably made for use in a lamaist ceremony.
A bowl with a flared rim, also with crossed vajras inside and dragons pursuing flowers outside in underglaze blue beneath a yellow-tinged glaze, is in the Ardebil shrine, Iran.

Christie's. Rarity and Refinement: Treasures from a Distinguished East Asian Collection, London, 15 May 2018 - SALE 16837