The cobalt on the guan is richly applied to suggest that this vessel was a costly item to produce since cobalt oxide pigment in the Yuan period was a rare imported commodity from the Middle East, where the whiteness of Chinese porcelain bodies were greatly admired. Under the impetus of Mongol rule to stimulate trade it is not surprising, therefore, to find so many blue and white pieces outside of China. An identical guan is in the Topkapi Saray Museum collection, cf. R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, vol. II, London, 1986, col. pl. 581. Comparing the present lot with the Istanbul guan, these two examples have the same divisional bands from rim to foot. These bear close association with the technique used to decorate dishes of this period where the design appear as concentric bands as exemplified by an example of a dish in the Topkapi Saray Museum, op. cit., no. 553.
Another good comparative example using this form of divisional banding is the pair of vases, known as the David vases, in the Percival David Foundation, illustrated in Oriental Ceramics, Kodansha Series, Tokyo, 1982, vol. 6, no. 25. These rare altar vases are important, not only in that they were inscribed with the name of the donor who commissioned them to indicate their domestic use, but they also bear a cyclical date corresponding to 1351. As such, their decorative motifs are often used as 'standard' in the comparison of late Yuan porcelains made at Jingdezhen, and in this instance could be stylistically compared with the present jar.
In terms of motifs, the major band on the present guan is the scrolling peony of the mid-body, where each flower is cleverly portrayed either in open or closed form. The unusual serated edge of the flower outlined with a brush, the peony's multi-layered petals, and each detailed with veins, are typical Yuan artistic contributions in underglaze-blue decoration. There is an element of imaginative freedom in the painting of the guan and this could be seen in the artist's interpretation in the state of each bloom; one of which is depicted showing a downturned flower being suspended by its calyx. Furthermore, small buds emerge to fill the void between each bloom which also appear on the David vases even though the scale of the band is much more reduced. For a further comparison of floral depictions between Yuan and early Ming periods, cf. Gugong Wenwu, June 1996, pp. 4-21.
This type of jar, taking its form from Middle Eastern metalwork as indicated by the two raised ridges dividing the shoulder and the neck, were probably used for food or liquid storage. An excavated example complete with a lid now in the Banpo Museum, Anhui, is illustrated by Wang Qingzheng (ed.), Underglaze Blue and Red, Hong Kong, 1987, no. 9. It is possible that blue and white wares were not only exported but found favour in the domestic market since the motifs were predominately Chinese in nature. It has been pointed out by Liu Xinyuan that the motifs of the David vases could be traced to embroidery and tapestry commonly found on Yuan Court costumes.
A related squat jar without the mask-handles but with the same decorative bands from the Shanghai Museum, is illustrated in Zhongguo Meishu Quanji, no. 28.
For illustrated examples decorated with mythical birds and beasts on the shoulder but without handles, cf. one with prancing qilin among flowers by J. A. Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington, 1956, pl. 26, no. 29.522; and another in Mayuyama Seventy Years, vol. I, pl. 694 with ascending and descending phoenix. Also, compare the one in the British Museum, formerly sold in our London Rooms, 27 June 1960, lot 61, illustrated in Oriental Ceramics, Kodansha Series, Tokyo, 1982, vol. 5, col. pl. 26, with moulded dragon handles.