With its four powerful five-clawed feet and its head turning backwards, the dragon on this 15th-century jar is depicted with terrific dynamism. It appears to be an early variation of the forward-facing dragon found on blue and white ceramics developed from the Yuan period (1271-1368). The inspiration for such an unusually portrayed dragon probably originated from Southern Song (1127-1279) paintings.
The jar contains details that have not been seen before on porcelain of previous dynasties — short spiky bristles in front of tufts of long flowing hair at the elbows of the dragon, for example. These details do, however, appear on the dragons in paintings by Chen Rong (circa 1200-1266), which were widely admired and had provided inspiration since the Song and Yuan periods.
In the long history of Chinese ceramics, the Xuande period (1426-1435) is generally regarded as the highpoint of blue and white porcelain production. This was due to a combination of enthusiastic imperial patronage, technical ingenuity and the finest levels of artistry. Xuande was the first Ming emperor to be a really serious patron of the arts. His three most celebrated areas of imperial patronage were court painting, building projects and the manufacture of fine porcelains.
Xuande-period porcelains were low in calcium and high in potassium, which made them more translucent. The glaze was rich and lustrous, while the underglaze decoration demonstrated complete mastery of painting in cobalt on a porous porcelain body. The use of darker and lighter blue tones is more commonly seen on Xuande dishes or stem bowls painted with dragon-and-wave patterns. It is very unusual to see such subtle techniques employed on such a large jar — a feature that underlines its great rarity.
The three main motifs on this jar — dragon, monster masks and clouds — are all painted with varying tones of blue in bold and fluent brush strokes. This powerfully-depicted imperial dragon perfectly symbolises the authority of the emperor. Many connoisseurs consider the painting of dragons on Xuande imperial porcelain to be the finest in the history of Chinese porcelain, and this example has exceptional vitality.
The porcelains of the Xuande reign frequently bore reign marks in regular script. The placement of reign marks on Xuande porcelains was variable — under the rim, inside the vessel, on the base, or on the shoulder, as on this vessel. More often, Xuande reign marks contained six characters, but this large jar belongs to one of two small groups of imperial vessels with four-character marks, which appear to have been made for special occasions. All the vessels in these groups are unusually large and all are decorated with powerful dragons among clouds and masks. In one group the dragons have five claws and backward turned heads, as on this jar, while in the other group the dragons have three claws and face forwards.
The massive size of this dragon jar suggests it was a very special commission. The decoration on it is identical to that on the pair of blue and white ‘dragon’ meiping vases in the Nelson Atkins Museum, and it is possible that the three vessels formed a set, made for a special imperial occasion or ritual. This magnificent dragon jar, however, appears to be the only one of its type to have survived intact, although fragments of a similar jar have been found at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen.