A large and finely painted blue and white 'Investiture of the Gods' brushpot, Ming dynasty, Chongzhen period (1627-1644)







Lot 513. A large and finely painted blue and white 'Investiture of the Gods' brushpot, Ming dynasty, Chongzhen period (1627-1644). Diameter 23.9 cm; wood stand. Lot Sold 355,600 USD (Estimate 60,000 - 80,000 USD). © Sotheby's 2023

Provenance: Collection of Harry Geoffrey Beasley (1881-1939).
Collection of Alfred William Cowperthwaite (1890-1964), acquired circa 1939, and thence by descent.

Note: "Can it be called filial piety when one launches a military attack before one has properly buried his late father? Can it be called a gentleman's proper behavior when a subject aims to assassinate his lord?" 

Fengshen Bang [The Investiture of the Gods]

Of imposing size, the present brushpot is exquisitely painted with a continuous narrative that showcases the masterful skill of the painter. This resplendent animated scene is derived from the famous 16th century novel Fengshen Bang [The Investiture of the Gods]. The story describes the downfall of the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC), crumbling under the tyrannical rule of a dissolute and depraved ruler and its conquest by the righteous King Wen of Zhou whose son, King Wu, established the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC). 

The historical basis for the vividly described conflict is fantastically augmented by an array of immortals, spirits and demons fighting alongside humans vying for supremacy. The events of the 2nd millennium BC clearly establish a correlation between the actions of a ruler and the divinely granted right to rule. Only a wise and benevolent sovereign could inspire the necessary loyalty from both men and celestial beings in order to be granted the Mandate of Heaven. The historical event responsible for establishing the Mandate of Heaven was of such significance that it attained legendary status and the stories within the novel became popular tales that propagated acts of moral righteousness and cautioned against the corrupt and sinful. 

Beautifully executed in varying shades of blue, the present brushpot shows two Shang princes, Shu Qi and Bo Yi, kneeling before the Zhou army in an attempt to halt its progress in conquering the Shang. After both rejecting the throne, the two princes sought to retire in the Zhou state. Yet, when they heard of the procession of its army towards Shang, they bravely presented themselves in front of the army and questioned the morals of the newly crowned King Wu of Zhou. Recognizing their bravery and righteousness, King Wu's chancellor, Duke Jiang, spared their lives despite their insult to his King and helped the two move out of their way. A story that praises the brave and the righteous amongst both parties, the scene skillfully captures the tense moment of exchange between the princes and the army. The army, with their large physique and heavy armor, stares sternly down at the two kneeling princes, serving as a stark contrast to the entourage of scholars, children and women behind the princes, further underlining the courage of the two brothers. Later on, the Zhou were victorious in their battle with the Shang, and the two brothers, refusing to eat the grains of the Zhou, eventually died of starvation. Fittingly, the story of Shu Qi and Bo Yi, who are remembered as martyrs of a once glorious empire, was immensely popular in the waning years of the Ming dynasty, which was threatened by Manchu forces who would eventually conquer China and establish Qing rule. 

Brushpots of similar impressive dimension and superlative quality are exceptionally rare. See a blue and white brushpot, decorated with a different story from Fengshen Bang, previously from the T.Y. Chao Family Collection, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 30th November 2017, lot 317. For brushpots painted with the story of Shu Qi and Bo Yi, see a blue and white brushpot, attributed to the Chongzhen period, in the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, illustrated in Seventeenth Century Jingdezhen Porcelain from the Shanghai Museum and the Butler Collections, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2006, cat. no. 17; and a large Kangxi famille-verte rouleau vase, previously in the Jie Rui Tang Collection, sold in these rooms, 20th March 2018, lot 322.

Sotheby's. Important Chinese Art, New York, 22 March 2023