A slip-inlaid celadon stoneware maebyong
A slip-inlaid celadon stoneware maebyong


A slip-inlaid celadon stoneware maebyong
Goryeo dynasty (12th century)
The elegant s-shaped profile with round shoulders and tapering body, inlaid in white and iron slip with three cranes flying amongst white-slip clouds, the mouth and foot rims designed with a narrow band of fretwork, finished with a glossy greenish glaze, four spur marks on base
12 ½ in. (31.8 cm.) high
With lacquered storage box
Rhee Byung-chang, Korai toji / Koryo Ceramics, in Kankoku bijutsu shusen / Masterpieces of Korean Art (Tokyo: privately published, 1978), no. 167.
Korai meipin ten / Exhibition of Mei-ping Vase, Koryo Dynasty, Korea, exh. cat. (Osaka: Museum of Oriental Ceramics, 1985), no. 8.
The Nezu Museum, Tokyo (Date unknown)
Museum of Oriental Ceramics, "Exhibition of Mei-ping Vase, Koryo Dynasty, Korea," 1985.4.23-8.31

Lot Essay

With its satisfying shape, harmonious decoration, and exquisitely colored celadon glaze, this maebyeong bottle is compellingly beautiful; moreover, with crane-and-cloud décor it is both rare and important. Korea’s best-known ceramics, the celadon wares , were produced during the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), an era of supreme artistic refinement. Plain vessels and ones with molded, incised, or carved decoration typify eleventh- and early twelfth-century Korean wares, while ones with designs inlaid in black and white slips, such as this superb maebyeong bottle, epitomize those from the mid-twelfth through the fourteen centuries.
Known in Chinese as meiping and in Korean as maebyeong—the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese name—such bottles had appeared in China by the tenth century and had been adopted in Korea by the eleventh. Both Chinese and Korean examples from the eleventh century have broad shoulders and a narrow base but, due to their slightly convex sides, appear a bit stocky; by contrast, those from the mid-twelfth century onward are slightly attenuated and have bulging shoulders, a constricted waist, and lightly flaring foot. Despite the poetic name meaning “plum vase,” maebyeong vessels were not vases for the display of cut branches of blossoming plum; rather, like the related Chinese meiping vessels, they were elegant storage bottles for wine and other liquids, though later collectors admittedly did sometimes press them into service as vases on special occasions, particularly when inviting learned friends of refined taste. Like other maebyeong bottles, this example originally sported a cover with angled sides and lightly domed top; though now lost, the cover would have protected the vessel’s contents from contaminants and from evaporation, just as it would have visually reversed and complemented the bottle’s strong curves. Two maebyeong bottles in the collection of the National Museum of Korea, Seoul, each also with crane-and-cloud décor, retain their original covers (accession numbers Deoksu 421 and Deoksu 3954).
This maebyeong bottle sports decoration of cranes flying amidst clouds inlaid in black and white slips ??? (the inlay known in Korean as sanggam gisul); most of the decoration appears in white slip, but the black slip used for the crane’s eyes, beaks, and legs not only serves a descriptive purpose but adds visual accents and thus emphasis to the design. Termed durumi ??? in Korean, the red-crowned crane, also called the Manchurian crane, is popular in East Asia and frequently appears in the arts of China, Korea, and Japan. Among the longest-lived of birds, such cranes symbolize longevity—sometimes even immortality—throughout East Asia; because they mate for life, they also emblemize fidelity. In addition, as they can fly long distances without tiring, cranes also stand as emblems of strength. In Korea, cranes are further regarded as symbols of purity, peace, and nobility. The reclusive scholar who cultivates bamboo and keeps cranes is a recurring theme in later Chinese and Korean painting—i.e., after 1500; in fact, some literati not only reared cranes but trained them to dance to guqin or gayageum music. Scholars in the company of cranes thus occasionally appear in Korean paintings of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), just as cranes often appear together with bamboo and pines—additional symbols of both strength and longevity—in Joseon paintings.
The happy balance between decorated and undecorated areas points to this bottle’s twelfth-century date of creation, as do the limited and very calculated use of black slip, the relatively small design elements, the lack of black-slip outlining around areas of white slip, and the incised, rather than inlaid, border pattern of leiwen, or squared spirals, around the lip. By contrast, in slip-inlaid maebyeong bottles from the thirteenth century, the borders at the bottom tend to be tall and assertive, often depicting a stylized pattern of rising lotus petals, and the decoration covers the entire vessel, leaving little unembellished space, as evinced by the famous “Thousand Crane Maebyeong”, Korean National Treasure number 68, in the collection of the Gansong (also spelled Kansong) Museum of Art, Seoul.
Though numerous kilns produced celadon wares, the very best pieces—which were used by the royal court, the aristocracy, and wealthy Buddhist temples—came from kilns in Gangjin (in South Jeolla province) and in Bu’an (in North Jeolla province), areas in the southwestern part of the peninsula that are rich in fine stoneware clays. In fact, this maebyeong bottle likely originated at the Bu’an kilns.
Korean celadon wares exemplify the refined sensibilities of Goryeo culture. Goryeo-period clients favored vessels of shapely form as witnessed by this elegant bottle with its broad shoulders and narrow waist. Korean celadon glazes generally are more transparent and also more bluish green than those of contemporaneous Chinese celadons. The finest Korean celadons rival their Chinese counterparts in terms of both artistic sophistication and technical achievement. In fact, Xu Jing (1091–1153), an official with an embassy from China to the Goryeo court in 1123, noted the close resemblance of Korean celadons to contemporaneous Chinese imperial Ru ware. And a thirteenth-century Chinese connoisseur, one Taiping Laoren, ranked Korean celadons “first under heaven”, including them on a list with such other “firsts” as the wines of the palace, the inkstones of Duanxi, the peonies of Luoyang, and the tea of Fujian.
Maebyeong bottles closely related to this one appear in collections in Korea, Japan, and the United States. The four examples most closely related to this exquisite example are in the National Museum of Korea, Seoul (Deoksu 2182), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (11.8.1), the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA (1991.551), and the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka (20767). Other related examples, in addition to the two vessels with covers in the National Museum of Korea mentioned above, include one in the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka (20164), and another in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (27.119.11).
Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museums, and
Senior Consultant, Christie’s

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