Treasured Throughout Asia
Rosemary Scott, Senior International Academic Consultant, Asian Art
This superb dish represents a particular type of fine blue and white Chinese porcelain that was especially prized by the imperial families of the great Asian empires of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The dish was made at the imperial kilns of the Chinese Yongle Emperor (1403-25), who is known for the outstanding quality of the decorative arts made for his court. Several dishes of similar size and shape – some decorated in underglaze blue and some in gilt - have been excavated from Yongle strata at the site of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. An underglaze blue-decorated example with an alternative choice of motifs is illustrated by the Chang Foundation in Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Taipei, 1996, pp. 165-5, no. 50. An identical dish to the current vessel is preserved in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Early Ming Period Porcelain, Taipei, 1982, p. 102, no. 37, while a very similar dish, but with waves around the flattened rim, is preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 34, Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), Hong Kong, 2000, p. 62, no. 59.
The rulers of the Turkish Ottoman Empire also greatly valued Chinese blue and white dishes of this type. Clear evidence for this can be seen in the Chinese collection of the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, which contains a number of early 15th century Chinese blue and white dishes of similar shape and size, with variants of the decorative motifs - illustrated by J. Ayers and R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Instanbul, vol. II, Yuan and Ming Dynasty Porcelain, London, 1986, pp. 512-4, nos. 601, 602, and 605. These Chinese porcelains were so highly regarded in the Ottoman Empire that in the 16th century the Turkish potters of Iznik produced low-fired dishes with the same flattened bracket-lobed rim and very similar blue decoration. A Turkish Iznik, high-footed, blue and white pottery dish, dated to AD 1560-70, with bracket-lobed rim and decoration clearly inspired by a dish like the current Chinese vessel, was offered by Sotheby’s London in their Arts of the Islamic World sale, 23 October 2019, lot 269.
The rulers of the Safavid Empire also highly esteemed Chinese early 15th century dishes of the type represented by the current lot. The Safavid Dynasty ruled Iran from AD 1501 to 1736. It is believed that the Safavid family came from Iranian Kurdistan, but eventually settled in Ardabil in the Azerbaijan region in the 11th century AD. Chinese porcelains are particularly associated with one site in this area – the famous Ardabil Shrine. Building work at Ardebil was begun in the reign of the founder of the Safavid dynasty, Shah Isma’il I (r. 1501-24).
When Shah ‘Abbas (r. AD 1571–1629), the 5th Safavid Shah, came to the throne, work on one particular aspect of the Ardebil Shrine intensified, and in 1607/8 Shah ‘Abbas endowed 1,162 pieces of valuable pieces of Chinese porcelain. In the summer of 1611, the Shah ordered them installed in the Chini-khaneh (China Chamber) of the Ardabil Shrine. The idea of a Chini-khaneh was one that appears to have its origins in Timurid dynasty, as the Sultan Ulugh Beg (r. 1447-49) is believed to have built a Chini-khaneh to house his collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain (see T. Lentz and G. Lowry, Timur and the Princely Vision, Los Angeles, 1989, p. 228). So great was the Safavid admiration for dishes exactly like the current lot that today eleven examples are still preserved in the Ardabil collection (three are illustrated by J.A. Pope in Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, London, 1981, pl. 35, nos. 29.101-111).
The Indian Mughal Empire is particularly associated with the current dish, since on one side of the vessel a lapidary has cut an inscription into the glaze, naming Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58), who was the 5th Mughal Emperor, son of Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) and favourite grandson of Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605). The inscription includes the title Sahib Qiran thani, the Second Lord of the [Celestial] Conjunction, a title taken by Shah Jahan that also reinforced the Mughal lineage, since the original Sahib Qiran was Timur (Tamerlane r. 1370 – 1405), back to whom the Mughals traced their line. The inscription also includes a date AH 1046, corresponding to AD 1637-38. It has been noted that the habit of inscribing precious objects or gems with the name of their owner was a Timurid fashion that was adopted, along with other aspects of imperial style, by the Mughals.
Shah Jahan ruled during what has been called the Golden Age, and alongside his political, intellectual and other interests, he was a great patron of the arts. He had an especial interest in architecture and ordered the building of a significant number of spectacular monuments, the best known of which is the Taj Mahal, which was built at Agra during the period AD 1632-48 as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, and where he too was eventually buried. It would seem that Shah Jahan inherited his admiration of Chinese porcelain from his father Jahangir, who held Chinese design in high esteem and who, according to Sir Thomas Roe (AD 1581-1644), ‘prized china more than gold and silver, horses and jewels’, and who reportedly almost beat a man to death on one occasion because he had broken a piece of the emperor’s beloved Chinese porcelain. Sir Thomas Roe was Ambassador to the court at Agra from 1615 to 1618, and became something of a favourite of Emperor Jahangir. His diaries are a valuable source of information on the Mughal court of the early 17th century. A number of Chinese porcelains are known which are inscribed with the name of Shah Jahan, his father Jahangir, or his successor Aurangzeb (r. AD 1658-1707). It has been suggested that such inscriptions were applied on the orders of the emperors themselves as marks of ownership or lineage, or that they were inscribed as gifts from the Persian or Turkish royal houses. A large mid-14th century blue and white dish and a large late 14th or early 15th century white dish from the Rockefeller Collection both bear inscriptions naming Shah Jahan (see Asia Society, Imperial Elegance – Chinese Ceramics from the Asia Society’s Rockefeller Collection, New York, 2005). A dish of similar shape to the current vessel, but of slightly larger size and with a grape motif in the central panel, was sold by Sotheby’s New York on 18th March 2015, lot 264. The New York dish also bears the mark of ownership of the 17th century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, written in a fine nasta liq script. This latter inscription includes the date 1053 AH, which corresponds to AD 1644. Shah Jahan clearly passed on his enthusiasm for these Chinese blue and white dishes to his son, since the al-Sabah Collection contains a similar dish, although with grapes in the central panel, which is inscribed under the rim Alangir Shahi 1071, 3, denoting the third regnal year of Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb - the date equivalent to AD 1660 (see O. Watson, Ceramics from Islamic Lands, London, 2004, pp. 484-6, no. W1).
It is interesting to note that a group of three drilled holes appear on the base of the current dish. John Pope has noted that a number of early 15th century Chinese porcelain dishes in the Ardabil collection bear groups of neatly drilled holes, some of which can be read as single letters or groups of letters, but which cannot be read as words, and some which appear to be merely signs. He surmised that these were marks of ownership (see John A. Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, London, 1981, p. 58). Similar drilled holes appear on Chinese vessels in the Topkapi Saray collection in Istanbul. The group of three small drilled holes in triangular formation, similar to those on the current dish, appear on 37 Chinese celadon wares and 17 porcelains in the Topkapi Saray (see J. Ayers and R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, vol. I, London, 1986, p. 127).
Large blue and white dishes with flattened bracket-lobed rims, of the type represented by the current dish, are found with a variety of motifs. The rims may be decorated with waves, the so-called blackberry lily scroll, or with the auspicious lingzhi scroll seen on the current lot. The cavettos of such dishes are almost invariably decorated with individual floral sprigs, but these may be of the more naturalistic type seen on the current dish, or a version in which the stem of the flower wraps around the bloom. This latter version, along with a wave band around the rim, can be seen on a dish in the Percival David Collection, illustrated in Blue and White for China – Porcelain Treasures in the Percival David Collection, London, 2004, pp. 22-3, no. 3. The central panel of these dishes is either decorated with grapes, as is the case on a dish in the collection of the British Museum, illustrated by J. Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, p. 117, no. 3:36; or a floral scroll in a hexafoil panel, as on an excavated dish illustrated by the Chang Foundation in Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Taipei, 1996, pp. 165-5, no. 50; or a mixed floral scroll of four flowers encircling a fifth blossom, as on the current dish.
In addition to the dishes mentioned above from the National Palace Museum, Taipei and the Ardabil Shrine collection, dishes with identical decoration to the current vessel can be found in the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm, published by J. Wirgin, Ming Porcelain in the Collection of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities: Hongwu to Chenghua, Stockholm, 1991, cat. no. 13; the Museum of Decorative Arts, Copenhagen, published by A. Leth, Kinesisk Kunst i Kunstindustri Museet: Catalogue of Selected objects of Chinese Art in the Museum of Decorative Art, Copenhagen, Copenhagen, 1959, cat. no. 108; and the Meiyintang collection, published by R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vols. 1-2, London, 1994, cat. no. 662; while another from the collection of Professor E.T. Hall was published by Eskenazi in the catalogue Yuan and Early Ming Blue and White Porcelain, London, 1994, p. 36, cat. no. 11.
Examining the current dish, it is not surprising that such vessels were highly esteemed by the rulers of the great Asian Empires. The size of the dishes was imposing, whether they were to be used at banquets or for display. The clay used for the bodies was well-levigated and pure white, which in turn provided an effective contrast to the beautiful cobalt blue of the underglaze decoration. This decoration was painted with great skill, while the decorative schemes were carefully chosen to complement the shape of the dishes. The current dish with its delicate floral scrolls and sprays has a design which would have appealed equally to the imperial rulers of Eastern, South and Western Asia. In China, each of the flowers in the cavetto and the central panel would have conveyed a particular meaning to those who saw the dishes – the rose for eternal spring and youth; the hibiscus for wealth and glory; the pomegranate offering joy and protection with its flowers and implying the provision of many sons through its (unseen) fruit; the lotus for harmony, beauty and purity; the peony for wealth and honour; the chrysanthemum for longevity and wealth; the camellia for joy and protection; while the combination of the four latter flowers represents the four seasons and provides a rebus for ‘may you enjoy wealth and honour throughout the year’ . This dish has an additional wish for longevity, provided by the lingzhi fungus scroll around its flattened rim.