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A RARE INSCRIBED WHITE 'MONK'S CAP' EWER
A RARE INSCRIBED WHITE 'MONK'S CAP' EWER
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A RARE INSCRIBED WHITE 'MONK'S CAP' EWER

YONGLE PERIOD (1403-1424)

Details
A RARE INSCRIBED WHITE 'MONK'S CAP' EWER
YONGLE PERIOD (1403-1424)
The ewer is elegantly potted with a bulbous body raised on a short splayed foot, below a curved handle with a ruyi-head tab, all decorated in a soft white glaze, tianbaiyou. The neck, shoulder and lower body above the foot are decorated with incised foliate patterns, and the body is incised with a Tibetan inscription in one horizontal line.
8 ¼ in. (21 cm.) high
Provenance
Sotheby's New York, 17 March 2015, lot 119
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Lot Essay

The Tibetan inscription may be translated as:
'May there be peace and tranquility during the day;
May there be peace and tranquility during the night;
May there be peace and tranquility at noon;
Peace and tranquility day and night;
The Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) ensure peace and tranquility.'

Compare this to a similar ewer from the Meiyintang Collection which sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 9 October 2012, lot 10.

The ‘monk’s cap’ ewer, or sengmaohu, originated in the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty, as evidenced by the example excavated from a Yuan dynasty relics site in Beijing. See Rong Dawei, Beijing: lishi wenwu chenlie, Beijing, n.d. This example has a pale bluish-white glaze described by some scholars as danqing (pale bluish-white), and by others as qingbai ware. It is slightly smaller in size (19.7 cm.) than the subsequent early Ming examples, which, like the present ewer, are typically 21 cm. high.
The exact origins of the shape of the ‘monk’s cap’ ewer remain unknown, but the shape likely derives from the hat of the karmapas, leaders of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, who performed sacred rituals and served as spiritual advisors to the emperor. Before the start of the Yuan dynasty, Khublai Khan, a then governor of the Mongol territory, summoned Karma Pakshi (b. 1204), the Second Karmapa, to his court. Karma Pakshi wore a black hat called a gomsha that resembled the top portion of the ‘monk’s cap ewer.’ The Karmapa remained in court during the Yuan dynasty, and his presence aligns with the creation of the first ‘monk’s cap’ ewer during this time. The points on the hat, and thus of the ewer, likely represent the Buddhas of the Five Directions. The five points are also found on initiation crowns used in Vajrayana Buddhist rituals. The hat was first worn by the First Karmapa a century earlier during the performance of important rituals, and functioned as a symbol of the karmapa’s power. Moreover, the karmapas were thought to be bodhisattvas in their own right, who manifested as Guanyin when wearing the famed hat.
Because of the long history of ceramics being fashioned after metalwork prototypes in Buddhist material culture, scholars have held the presumption that ‘monk’s cap’ ewers were based on an earlier Tibetan metalwork prototype. However, there are no extant metalwork examples known predating the Yuan dynasty ewers and all known examples have been dated to the eighteenth century or later. A nineteenth-century Tibetan copper and tin example dating to the 19th century, which has an additional handle to one side (as opposed to the one handle on the ceramic ‘monk’s cap’ ewer), is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, accession number IM.7-1915. This metalwork example is 38.8 cm. high, significantly larger than the extant ceramic examples.
It remains possible that the ‘monk’s cap’ ewer was an innovation of the Yuan court and derives directly from Buddhist costume, and that the metalwork examples are based on the ceramic ewers. This is substantiated by evidence in the Yuan Shi (Official History of the Yuan Dynasty), juan (section) 88, that documents that hat and ceramic production were supervised by a single bureau—The Bureau for Imperial Manufactures. The Yuan Shi states that this bureau supervised both the Fuliang Porcelain Bureau (the bureau that oversaw porcelain production in the Yuan dynasty) and the production of hats made of horsehair, coir (coarse fiber) and rattan.
The first ‘monk’s cap’ ewers of the Ming dynasty were made during the Yongle period (1403-1425), when the present ewer was made. In this period, ‘monk’s cap’ ewers were made in monochrome glazes of copper-red and underglaze-blue, but tianbai, or ‘sweet white’, were the most popular. Over fifty-five examples of Yongle ‘monk’s cap’ ewers have been excavated from Jingdezhen, and the majority were tianbai. Notably, 98% of excavated shards from the Yongle period were also tianbai, illustrating the popularity of white ceramics at this time.
Scholars speculate that the Yongle emperor commissioned many rituals using white vessels in ceremonies memorializing his parents in order to prove his legitimacy, as he had usurped his nephew’s throne. The Fifth Karmapa, known as Halima or Deshin Shekpa (1384-1415), was invited to the Yongle court to preside over these ceremonies, once again aligning the presence of karmapas in the court with ewer production. The Ming shi lu (The Veritable Records of the Ming Dynasty), xiyu section 3, documents the Fifth Karmapa’s importance at court and his presiding over memorial ceremonies at Linggusi. White ‘monk’s cap’ ewers like the present ewer may have been made to give to the Karmapa as gifts after the completion of ritual ceremonies (Li Xianyi, ed., Jingdezhen Zhushan chutu: Yongle Xuande guanyao ciqi zhanlan, Hong Kong, 1989, 62).
While many of the Yongle tianbai ‘monk’s cap’ ewers are plainly decorated, several notable tianbai examples are decorated in anhua with Tibetan inscriptions, like the present ewer. One very similar example is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 1991.253.36, which bears the same inscription as the present ewer. This canonical Tibetan Buddhist inscription appears on Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags. Interestingly, the letters on the inscription are fairly uniform in height, suggesting that the text was drawn by someone unfamiliar with Tibetan script, typical for an imperial piece made in Jingdezhen at this time. This same Tibetan inscription also appears on a Xuande period blue and white stem bowl in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. For an example of a white tianbai ‘monk’s cap’ ewer with anhua decoration that still bears its original cover, see Chen and Wang, Xueyu cangzheng: Xizang wenwu jinghua, Shanghai, 2001, p. 177, no. 88.
‘Monk’s cap’ ewer production continued into the Xuande period (1426-1435) in new colors, motifs, and decoration. One of the most notable innovations of the ‘monk’s cap’ ewer in the Xuande period is the blue and white ewer. One notable example is decorated similarly to the present ewer with a Tibetan inscription around the body but in blue and white, excavated in 1983 from the Ming imperial kiln site in Zhushan and is illustrated in Zhang Bai (ed.), Zhongguochutu ciqi quanji—14—Jianxi, Beijing, 2008, p. 170. The other type of blue and white ewer is decorated with a Tibetan inscription around the body, but with a dragon on the neck, replacing the design of Buddhist emblems found on the other ewers with Tibetan inscriptions.
Like in the Yongle period, Xuande examples were also made in monochrome glazes of red and blue, but experimental glazes were also found in excavations from Zhushan. Two unusual examples of celadon ‘monk’s cap’ ewers were excavated, and are illustrated in Liang Sui (ed.), Jingdezhen chutu Yuan Ming gongyao ciqi, Beijing, 1999, no. 248, and Jingdezhen chutu: Ming Xuande Guanyao ciqi, Taiwan, 1998, p. 124, no. F30. Though misfired and thus likely discarded, they show the range of innovation in ceramic production of the period. The other, perhaps most notable example, are six fragments of a spotted copper, iron and cobalt ‘monk’s cap’ ewer, also excavated from Zhushan and published in Jingdezhen chutu: Ming Xuande guanyao ciqi, Taiwan, 1998, 124, no. F32, where the author notes that this is the only time this technique of combining dots and splashes of iron, copper and cobalt has been seen. No complete example of a spotted ‘monk’s cap’ ewer has been found.
After the Xuande period, production of the ‘monk’s cap’ ewer came to a halt for over two-hundred years, only to reappear in the Qing dynasty, when they were revered by emperors for their unusual shape and superb quality.

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