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A Very Rare Early Ming Flask
International Academic Director, Asian Art Departments
This very rare and handsome porcelain flask provides interesting evidence of the influence of the cultures of the Islamic west on Chinese porcelain in the early 15th century. A number of Chinese porcelains were made at that time in forms that show the influence of Islamic artefacts - usually metalwork or glass, but this flask form is one of the rarest. The form of the current porcelain flask is very distinctive, and evidence suggests that it was probably inspired by Islamic metalwork. There is a slightly larger Syrian brass canteen, dating to the mid-13th century, in the collection of the Freer Gallery, Washington, which is of similar form.1 Interestingly the brass canteen is decorated with Christian imagery as well as calligraphy, geometric designs and animal scrolls. The form of the Syrian canteen is, however close to the Chinese porcelain example in that it is circular, with a flat back and domed front, and has a decorative roundel in the centre of the domed surface. However, the mouth of the metal form is more bulbous than that of the porcelain vessel and the handles of the former are strap handles joining the neck and sides.
The porcelain version of the form has small loop handles set some distance on either side of the neck, and these would originally have had ring handles suspended from them. The ring handles are still in place on the Chinese early 15th century blue and white porcelain flask in the Freer Gallery,2 and on two of the flasks in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing,3 but the loose rings are missing from other examples. It would, however, probably have been unwise to hang the porcelain version of this shape from its handles, especially when it was full, since it would have been very heavy and porcelain handles are not especially strong. The porcelain handles could have been used to stabilise the vessel when it was being carried, but perhaps but this could have been combined with a supporting strap around the flask's circumference. Its flat, undecorated, back would have allowed the vessel to rest efficiently against the sides of an animal or vehicle when hung for travelling. However, since the porcelain flask would have been an expensive and precious item when it was made, one wonders how often such pieces were actually used for practical rather than decorative purposes in the early Ming dynasty.
The Syrian 13th century brass canteen in the Freer Gallery appears to be the only published example of such a metal vessel, but a smaller green glazed earthenware pilgrim flask from Sus dating to the Sassanian period (AD 224-642) is in the collection of the Iran Bastan Museum, Teheran.4 This earthenware flask has similar flat encircling sides and domed front to the metalwork and porcelain examples. The handles on the earthenware flask are looped and are placed halfway between the position of those on the metal and porcelain vessels. Such a shape could be slab-made in earthenware, but it is still a moot point as to whether the original version of the form might have been made of leather or metal.
The C- and S-shaped serrated leaves seen in the floral scrolls on Chinese early 15th century flasks of this type decorated in underglaze cobalt blue are likely to have taken their inspiration from the slightly less elongated leaves of the type seen on a 13th century Islamic lustre ware bowl and dish in the Iran Bastan Museum in Teheran.5 Despite being somewhat shorter than those on the Chinese porcelain flask, the C-shaped leaves in the central panel of lustre ware dish from Kasan, have similar smooth internal curves and serrated external edges, while the leaves on the bowl from Jorjan have the S-shaped profile of the leaves seen on the two larger blue and white flasks in Beijing.6 The type of floral scroll with these C- and S-form serrated leaves, which appears on the Chinese blue and white flasks, can be seen on a number of early 15th century blue and white wares - mainly those which owe their form to the influence of the Islamic west. This type of floral scroll can, for example be seen on a tankard in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, which is based on a Islamic metalwork tankard, and has an Islamic style lattice on its lid.7
The turbulent waves and small eddies, that form the decorative roundel on the raised boss in the centre of the domed side of the flask, are interesting because they are usually seen on early 15th century porcelains in horizontal bands around, for example, the necks of tankards, like the vessel from the Burrell Collection mentioned above, or around the cylindrical bodies of albarellos like the example in the Freer Gallery.8 Similar turbulent waves and eddies also appear as background on some early 15th century porcelains, such as the famous stem bowl with underglaze blue waves and underglaze copper red dragons in the collection of the Percival David Foundation,9 and similar stem bowls which have been excavated from the site of the imperial Ming kilns at Jingdezhen.
An early 15th century blue and white porcelain flask of the same size, form and decoration as the current example is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.10 The Taipei flask has lost not only its loose ring handles, but also its loop handles, however its neck and mouth are in tact. Another flask of the same form and decoration, but, at 30.4 cm. in height, of smaller size than the current example, is in collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.11 This Beijing flask has retained both neck and loop handles, but no longer has its loose ring handles. In fact the Palace Museum, Beijing, has four of these early 15th century blue and white porcelain flasks from the Qing court collection, each of different size and displaying three different decorative schemes. The second flask, in ascending order at size at 45 cm. in height, has turbulent waves and eddies painted over the entirety of its sides, in place of the floral scroll on the current vessel.12 This Beijing flask has the floral scroll as an outer band on its domed surface. The rest of the domed surface is decorated with an Islamic-inspired lattice, while the central boss has a roundel of waves and eddies, similar to those on the current flask. The third Beijing flask (H: 46 cm.) is painted with smaller waves acting as background on the raised boss, but the main decoration in that area is an Islamic inspired lattice star.13 The sides of this Beijing flask are decorated with a floral scroll similar to that on the current vessel, as is the major part of the domed section, but the domed section also has an encircling band of waves and eddies. This Beijing flask is of the same form, size and decoration as a further flask in the collection of the Freer Gallery in Washington,14 and another that was sold in Hong Kong by Sotheby's in November 1999. The first two of these flasks have retained their loose ring handles, the third example has not. The last of the four Beijing Palace Museum flasks has the same decorative scheme as the third Beijing flask, but, at a height of 54 cm., is the largest of the flasks and is the only one to have retained its original lid.15 The lid has a bud-shaped finial, and originally a chain or cord would have tied the finial to a small ring that can be seen on one side of the necks of all these flasks. The Beijing flasks have been discussed by Professor Geng Baochang in Ming Qing ciqi jianding, where he also provides line drawings of the proportions.16
A notable feature of all these porcelain flasks is that they have a circular recess in their flat, unglazed side. It seems possible that this domed recess was there to lessen the danger of warping when such a large and heavy vessel was fired. The flat, unfired, sides of all these flasks, including the current example, have darkened radial lines left by a cruciform, six- or eight-legged setter. The potters may have found that it was preferable not to have the recessed central section in contact with the setter all the way across its diameter, and the central recess prevented this. Certainly these large flasks would have offered challenges both for potting and firing. Probably few were ever successfully manufactured, and thus very few of these impressive vessels have survived into the current day.
1 Illustrated on http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/online/islamic/artofobject1b.htm.
2 The World's Great Collections - Oriental Ceramics, Vol. 9, The Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Kodansha, Tokyo, 1981, black and white plate no. 94
3 The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 34 - Blue and White with Underglaze Red (I), Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 37, no. 35 and p. 38, no. 36.
4 The World's Great Collections - Oriental Ceramics, Vol 4, Iran Bastan Museum Teheran, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1981, black and white plate no. 101.
5 The World's Great Collections - Oriental Ceramics, Vol 4, Iran Bastan Museum Teheran, op. cit., nos. 34, and 35.
6 The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 34 - Blue and White with Underglaze Red (I), op. cit., nos. 36 and 37.
7 R. Marks, R. Scott, et al., The Burrell Collection, Collins, Glasgow, 1984, p. 53, no. 17.
8 The World's Great Collections - Oriental Ceramics, Vol. 9, The Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., op. cit., black and white plate no. 96.
9 Rosemary Scott, Imperial Taste - Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1989, p. 63, no. 33.
10 Mingdai chu nian ciqi tezhan mulu, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1982, no. 1.
11 The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 34 - Blue and White with Underglaze Red (I), op. cit., no. 34.
12 ibid., no. 35.
13 ibid., no. 36.
14 The World's Great Collections - Oriental Ceramics, Vol. 9, The Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., op. cit., black and white plate no. 94.
15 The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 34 - Blue and White with Underglaze Red (I), op. cit., no. 37.
16 Geng Boachang, Ming Qing ciqi jianding, Forbidden City Publishing, Beijing, 1993, p. 24, fig. 39, and fig. 54.
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