Lot 525. A very rare sancai-glazed pottery 'dragon-fish' ewer, Liao dynasty (907-1125); 12¾ in. (32.3 cm.) long. Estimate USD 20,000 - USD 30,000. Price realised USD 25,000. © Christie's Image Ltd 2008.
The vessel crisply molded as a dragon-fish cradled within the open petals of a lotus flower and grasping a pearl in its mouth, the handle of the vessel set between the wings and tail and formed by the undulating trail of a swirling cloud, the details picked out in amber, green and straw glazes.
Note: This rare Liao dynasty ewer is extremely similar to a Liao ewer, lead-glazed with the same sancai palette, from the Kezuo Central Banner, Tongliao City, which is now preserved in the Tongliao City Museum. See Gilded Splendor - Treasures of China's Liao empire (907-1125), Hsueh-man Shen, ed., Asia Society, New York, 2006, p. 350, no. 113. Not only is the current ewer approximately the same size as the Tongliao vessel, but details such as the shape of the nose, wings, fins and eyes of the makara, as well as the handle are also very similar, while both makaras rest on double lotus stands with ribbed inner petals, and both hold pearls in their mouths, which provide the spouts for the vessels.
Another Liao sancai ewer of this form found at Fuxin in Liaoning province is illustrated by Feng Yongqian, Dongbei kaogu yanjiu (1) [Archaeological Studies of Northeast China (1)], Zhengzhou, 1994, p. 232, fig. 7. A Liao sancai-glazed flask in the shape of a makara of similar form to the current ewer, and also resting on a double lotus and with a pearl in its mouth was excavated in 1981 at Ningcheng, Inner Mongolia, and is now preserved in the Ningcheng Cultural Relics Bureau. See Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan - Taoci juan, Taipei, 1993, p. 165, no. 564. A Liao dynasty sancalamp, or water dropper, in the form of a makara, with a pan in the shape of a lotus leaf, is illustrated by Estell Nikles van Osselt in "Song Ceramics: A Study of Makara and Dragon-fish Designs", S. Pierson, ed., Song Ceramics - Art History, Archaeology and Technology, Colloquies on Art & Archaeology in Asia No. 22, Percival David Foundation, London, 2004, p. 136, fig. 14.
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there has been considerable scholarly debate relating to the identification of the dragon-fish and the makara. Estell Nikles van Osselt suggested a clarification of the terminology in her paper "Song Ceramics: A Study of Makara and Dragon-fish Designs", op. cit., pp. 119-50. While the Chinese dragon-fish is often, but not exclusively, linked to the notion of a fish in the process of turning into a dragon, the makara appears to be a mythical beast of Indian origin made up of elements from creatures such as crocodile, elephant and fish. The Chinese notion of a dragon-fish can be found in such early literature as the Shanhaijing and the Hou Han Shu. Indian makaras appear in Indian temple architecture and on the jewellery worn by Vishnu, the god of Mercy. While the Goddess of the River Ganga is often depicted riding on a makara. The Indian makara appears to have entered China around the same time as Buddhism was becoming established, but does not seem to occur in the ceramic repertory until the Tang dynasty. Even in this early period, the auspicious nature of the Chinese makara is established by its association with the flaming pearl. On Chinese ceramics the pearl is either shown being chased by two circling makaras, as on the interior of a 10th century Yue ware bowl in the collection of the Percival David Foundation, illustrated by R. Scott in "Miseyao and the Changing Status of Ceramics in the Tang Period", Wang Qingzheng, ed., Yue Ware - Miseci Porcelain, Shanghai, 1996, fig. 15. Alternatively the pearl is depicted as being held in the mouth of the makara, as in the case of the current vessel. An association of the makara with Buddhism is suggested by the placement of the creature on a lotus stand in many of the depictions, including the current ewer.
Makaras were a popular theme on the decorative arts of the Liao and are found in a number of contexts. They have been found in architectural stonework, in frescos, and in jewellery - particularly earrings. See silver-gilt, gold and jade examples illustrated in Noble Riders from Pines and Deserts - The Artistic Legacy of the Qidan, J. F. So, ed., Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2004, pp. 160-1, nos. IV:5 and IV:6. In Liao ceramics the makara is not only found among sancai-glazed wares, but also among white wares, such as the water cup excavated from a Kulunqi tomb in Inner Mongolia, illustrated in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan - Taoci juan, op. cit., p. 315, no. 492, and now preserved in the Zheli Mumeng Museum, and the water dropper in the Tokyo National Museum illustrated by M. Medley in T'ang Pottery and Porcelain, London, 1981, p. 133, fig. 128. It even occurs occasionally among Liao celadons, as in the case of the celadon water cup excavated in 1971 from a Liao tomb at Shuiquan, Beipiao Liaoning province and now preserved in the Liaoning Provincial Museum, illustrated ibid., p. 318, no. 502.
The result of Oxford thermoluminescence test no. C198w20 is consistent with the dating of this lot.