A fine and extremely rare blue and white stembowl. Mark and period of Xuande

exquisitely potted with gently rounded sides rising to a wide mouth, supported on a slightly flared tall hollow cylindrical foot tapering towards the top, faintly decorated on the interior with a continuous frieze of lança characters encircling the well above a band of lotus petal lappets, all enclosing the four-character nianhao, incised in archaic style, within two concentric incised lines, the exterior meticuously inscribed in brilliant cobalt blue with a further frieze of a Buddhist prayer written in lança script, above a two tiers of radiating lotus petal lappets skirting the base, each lappet infilled with a trefoil leaf on a 'heaped and piled' blue ground, all within double-line borders around the mouth and foot, the base of the foot encircled with a band of 'classic scroll' between further double-line borders. 16.8 cm., 6 5/8 in. Estimate Upon Request

PROVENANCE: Sotheby's London,10th December 1985, lot 195.


A cup of 'Peace and Tranquility'
Hajni Elias

Blue and white imperial porcelain of the Xuande reign (1426-1435) rank among the finest in the history of Chinese ceramics. Their influence on later imperial wares cannot be exaggerated. Xuande designs became the inspiration and blueprint throughout the Ming and Qing periods, although it was not until the Yongzheng period (1723-1735) of the Qing dynasty that potters were able to achieve a close resemblance. Technical and artistic perfection characterizes Xuande pieces, with a perfect white body and particularly deep and clear cobalt blue decoration.

This stemcup is an outstanding and extremely rare example of vessels of this elegant form and delicate design made during the reign of the Xuande Emperor of the Ming dynasty. Only four other stemcups of the same form and painted decoration can be found; one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Special Exhibition of Hsuan-te Wares, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1980, cat. no. 54 (fig. 1), engraved with a four-character Xuande seal mark in archaic script enclosed in a double-ring and within a band of lotus petals; another in the Roemer Museum, Hildesheim, from the Ohlmer collection, illustrated in Ulrich Wiesner, Chinesisches Porzellan, Mainz am Rhein, 1981, pl. 1; a third cup, in the Potala Palace collection, included in the exhibition Treasures from snow Mountains. Gems of Tibetan Cultural Relics, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2001, cat. no. 96, together with a gilded silver bowl stand with lotus design, possibly made to hold the vessel, cat. no. 97; and a fourth example sold in our New York rooms, 19th November 1982, lot 239, formerly in the collection of Mrs. Stanley Herzman and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, illustrated in Suzanne G. Valenstein, A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, New York, 1989, pl. 151.

The Tibetan lança inscription decorating the body of this stemcup is a prayer-poem and can be translated as follows:

Peace and tranquility by day, peace and tranquillity by night,
Peace and tranquility at midday,
Peace and tranquility unceasing, by day and by night,
May the three treasures ensure peace and tranquility!

Teresa Tse Bartholomew in Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World, Santa Ana, 2003, p. 107, notes that this prayer-poem stresses the blessings in this life and had caught the attention of the Ming emperor who had it woven into presentation scarves, embroidered onto thankas and inscribed on porcelain. The Xuande emperor, in the footsteps of his predecessor, the Yongle Emperor, continued to foster close tributary relations with Tibet throughout his reign. He was a keen follower of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan monks were frequently invited to the capital where they performed rituals and ceremonies for him and his family. They received special treatment and were sent back to Tibet with lavish gifts for the high lamas. Vessels of this type were made in the Ming imperial kilns located at Zhushan, Jingdezhen, exclusively for the Tibetan religious hierarchy.

The same lança inscription can be found on the interior of a blue-and-white stemcup, in the Tibet Museum, included in the Shanghai Museum exhibition, op.cit., cat. no. 95 (fig. 2). The exterior of this vessel is decorated with lotus petal bands matching the present cup below a lotus scroll supporting the Eight Buddhist symbols (bajixiang). For a study of this stemcup see Shi Zhu and Leng Jian, 'Introducing a blue and white stembowl with Tibetan inscription in the Tibetan Culture Gallery', Wenwu, 1981, no. 11, pp. 75-76. See also a stemcup in the Meiyintang collection, the inside inscribed with a large central lança character in a double ring and the Tibetan prayer-poem in a horizontal line halfway up the sides and the outside decorated with two five-clawed dragons boldly painted against a ground of dense scrolling lotus, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol.4, forthcoming (2009).

Compare another Xuande mark and period stemcup with the Tibetan lança inscription and with the dragon design, from the Sa-skya Monastery, included in the Shanghai Museum exhibition, op.cit., cat. no. 94 (fig. 3), where on p. 183, it is noted that a similarly decorated piece can be found in the same collection of the Sa-skya Monastery, and that the two vessels were granted by the Ming imperial court to this monastery.

Stemcups of this type were made to accompany monk's cap ewers (sengmao hu) and formed a set for drinking wine. They were used at wedding banquets or on special celebratory occasions. See a monk's cap ewer, the neck painted with the Eight Buddhist symbols above a lotus scroll and the body with the Tibetan prayer poem above a fine lotus petal lappet and a narrow classic scroll border, from the collection of the Tibet Museum, included in the Shanghai Museum exhibition, ibid., cat. no. 89 (fig. 4). See further two ewers with the lança script on the body but the neck decorated with dragons amongst lotus blossoms; one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the museum's Special Exhibition of selected Hsuan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 30 (fig. 5); and the other illustrated in Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of Ming Imperial factory at Jingdezhen, 1989, pl. 82.

The anhua (secret decoration) technique used on the making of the present piece, where the design is delicately incised on the interior surface of the vessel and then covered with a diluted slip, was much favoured on early Ming white wares and is rarely seen on blue-and-white vessels. The lotus petals and the continuous frieze of inscription found on the interior of this stemcup are extremely fine and visible only against the light. See a white-glazed stemcup, decorated in the anhua technique with dragons and with a similar incised four-character Xuande reign mark on the base, included in the National Palace Museum exhibition, op.cit., cat. no. 95 (fig. 6).

The rare four-character Xuande archaic script mark found on this stemcup is also noteworthy. It is in the same style as the Yongle script mark that was based on the rendition by Shen Da, a court calligrapher much esteemed by the Yongle emperor, who was often chosen to inscribe objects made in precious materials. The Yongle archaic script mark was the earliest imperial reign mark used on porcelain. It only appears on monochrome wares with the exception of three small blue-and-white decorated wine cups (yashoubei) in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Geng Baochang in Ming Qing ciqi jianding, Hong Kong, 1993, p. 333, discusses the Xuande archaic script mark and notes that they were especially fine and light (qing) in appearance.

Blue and white stemcups of this elegant form continued to be made during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911); for example see a Qianlong mark and period cup painted with lança characters beneath a band of classic lotus bloom roundels borne on scrolling stems around the rim, in the Musee Guimet, Paris, illustrated in Michel Beurdeley and Guy Raindre, Qing Porcelain, London, 1987, pl. 171; and another similar stemcup sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27th November 2007, lot 1698.

Sotheby's. Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art. 08 Apr 09. Hong Kong www.sothebys.com photo courtesy Sotheby's