By the late Tang, many Chinese kilns—including all of those producing high-quality wares—had begun to employ saggars in which to fire their ceramics. Usually of fired ceramic ware, a saggar (Chinese, xiabo) is a covered, refractory, or heat-resistant, container in which ceramics are fired. Saggars may be either cylindrical or funnel-shaped, like this one; they typically are stacked one atop another in the kiln. Cylindrical examples may contain one ceramic piece per saggar, or they may have stepped interiors that permit smaller vessels to be nested under larger ones of similar shape, the pieces placed upside down in the saggars and with their rims left unglazed; the use of stepped saggars that can contain multiple pieces increases kiln efficiency, as more ceramics can be fitted into the kiln interior, thereby conserving fuel. Funnel-shaped saggars are also stacked; in their case, the pieces they contain must be of the same size and shape, and they generally are placed in the saggar right side up. The thick-walled saggars serve two purposes: 1) they protect the ceramics being fired from the ash, soot, and other combustion products in the kiln atmosphere that could cause discolorations or other glaze defects should they fall on the pieces during firing, and 2) they protect the ceramics from minor fluctuations in kiln temperature that, during critical firing stages, could cause warping, slumping, cracking, or other deformities.
Because of the strong drafts within the kiln during firing but especially because of the expansion of the saggars and their contents in the high temperatures of the kiln, the columns of stacked saggars often shift position, sometimes toppling over, in which case the ceramics come to touch the saggar walls, and the melting glaze fuses the two together, as happened in this instance. Such mishaps regularly happened at all kiln sites; in fact, despite the most cautious preparations, they were unavoidable at traditional kilns. The failures—kiln wasters, as they are called—were discarded in the great waste heaps that accumulated at every kiln site. What is remarkable here is that not only is the Jun bowl rare and beautiful, but, except for being fused to the saggar, it is otherwise perfectly preserved.
Celebrated for its pale blue glaze, Jun ware was produced at many kilns in northern China, but particularly at ones in central Henan Province. The kilns are believed to have been active from the tenth to the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Thick, opalescent, and translucent, Jun glazes are a variant of celadon glaze; their robin’s-egg blue color results from the addition of ash to the glaze slurry before firing. Jun ware lacks decoration because its thick, semi-opaque glaze would obscure any such embellishment. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, Jun potters sometimes shaped their vessels with molds, the pleasing definition of the shape constituting a form of abstract decoration, as witnessed by this bowl’s lobed walls and cusped rim. They also often applied copper filings to localized areas of the glaze before firing, the copper causing the glaze in those areas to assume a purple color in the heat of the kiln.
The collection of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC, includes two saggar-with-fused-Jun-bowl combinations, each saggar with a bowl of plain circular form but with purple splashes (F1911.335 and F1911.336). No comparable Jun bowls with lobed walls, cusped rims, and well-defined, precisely placed purple markings are known. However, this bowl’s complex form finds kinship in silver bowls from the Southern Song and Jin periods, just as it also shows affinities to lacquerwares of the period. In the Southern Song period, the Guan kilns, near Hangzhou, in northeastern Zhejiang province, produced delicately lobed dishes with barbed rims, as evinced by an example in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. In the Jin and Yuan periods, the Jun kilns occasionally produced large bowls with cloudy blue glaze, gently lobed walls, and barbed rims; two of the latter examples recently sold, one at Christie’s New York, 22 March 2013, lot 1439, and one at Eskenazi, London, published in Eskenazi, Junyao, 31 October - 22 November 2013, London, 2013, pp. 70-73, no. 11.
Robert D. Mowry
Senior Consultant, Christie’s, and
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museums
The saggar: the result of Oxford Authentication thermoluminescence test no. C114a82 is consistent with the dating of this lot.
The bowl: the result of Oxford Authentication thermoluminescence test no. P114p19 is consistent with the dating of this lot.