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Plate with Peonies and Waves in Reverse Pattern, 14th century, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration (Jingdezhen ware); H. 3 11/16 in. (9.4 cm), Diam. 17 13/16 in. (45.3 cm). Lent by The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka

The Yuan dynasty was one of the most innovative periods in the decorative arts of China. The native arts of pottery and lacquer were transformed by the coming together of artistic traditions from the north and the south, while craftsmen brought into China from other areas of the greater Mongol Empire introduced new skills to weaving and metalwork.

Relative to the decorative arts of previous periods, those of the Yuan dynasty can be distinguished by a predilection for three-dimensional form and elaborate surface decoration. The former is demonstrated by high-relief carving on lacquer. Painted decoration was applied to all types of Yuan ceramics, of which the blue-and-white porcelain of Jingdezhen is the best known and appreciated. Both technically and artistically, the decorative arts of the Yuan period remain unsurpassed.

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Bottle, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China. Porcelain with splashed copper decoration (Jun ware); H. 14 5/8 in. (37.2 cm), Diam. of rim: 1 5/8 in. (4.2 cm), Diam. of foot: 2 3/4 in. (7 cm). Lent by Hebei Province Cultural Relics Conservation Center

This bottle is a classic example of Jun ware produced in Henan Province in the twelfth to thirteenth century. The purple splash is achieved by adding a copper compound to the blue glaze.

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Stem Cup with Dragon, 14th century, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China.. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration. (Jingdezhen ware); H. 3 3/4 in. (9.5 cm), Diam. of rim: 3 3/4 in. (9.5 cm), Diam. of foot: 1 5/16 in. (3.3 cm). Lent by Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

The full flowering of the use of cobalt blue, imported into southern China from the Kashan region in northwest Iran, appears to date to about 1330, when porcelains decorated with this precious material appear in some number. Decorative schemes include such delicately brushed motifs as the playful dragon seen here, while others feature much more elaborate designs.

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Bottle, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China. Porcelain with underglaze copper red (Jingdezhen ware); H. 8 7/16 in. (21.5 cm), Diam. 4 5/16 in. (11 cm), Diam. of rim: 2 9/16 in. (6.5 cm). Lent by Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

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Fluted cup with Chi-Dragon Handle, early 13th–early 14th century, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China. Porcelain (Qingbai ware); H. 2 3/8 in. (6 cm), Diam. 3 9/16 in. (9 cm). Lent by The Cleveland Museum of Art. Severance and Greta Millikin Collection, 1964.163

Before the advent of underglaze painted decoration, the kilns at Jingdezhen produced porcelain with a clear bluish glaze known as qingbai ware. The form and decoration of qingbai were often modeled after silver vessels, as in this example.

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Stem Cup, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China. Porcelain with underglaze red decoration (Jingdezhen ware); H. 3 7/16 in. (8.7 cm), Diam. of rim: 3 1/2 in. (8.9 cm), Diam. of foot: 1 7/16 in. (3.6 cm). Lent by Gansu Provincial Museum

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Spouted Bowl, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China. Porcelain with underglaze copper red decoration; H. 1 15/16 in. (4.9 cm), Diam. of rim: 5 11/16 in. (14.4 cm), Diam. of base: 3 9/16 in. (9 cm), L. (spout): 1 9/16 in. (4 cm). Lent by Jiangxi Gao'an County Museum

Potters at Jingdezhen first used cobalt blue for underglaze decoration in the fourteenth century, about the same time they began to experiment with copper red. They were perhaps inspired to do so by the purple splashes on Jun ware from North China, which were achieved by adding a copper compound to blue glaze. Underglaze copper red was also used for painted decoration, as seen on the spouted bowl here.

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Jar with the Story of Guiguzi, 14th century, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration (Jingdezhen ware); Diam. 13 in. (33 cm). Lent by a private collection

This spectacular jar is vibrantly painted with a narrative based on a popular tale (pinghua) set in the combative Warring States period (475–221 B.C.E.). The decoration, which may derive from woodblock-print illustrations, records an episode in the conflict between the states of Qi and Yan.

The scene can be identified by the presence of the famous strategist Guiguzi (Wang Yi), who is here seated in a cart pulled by a tiger and a leopard. He was asked to help liberate a Qi general who had been captured in battle. The two mounted figures most likely represent Sun Dai, who was sent to request Guiguzi's assistance, and another Qi general who led the large army sent to free the captive.

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Bottle with Scenes of the Four Favorites, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration (Jingdezhen ware); H. 15 1/4 in. (38.7 cm), Diam. of rim: 2 1/2 in. (6.4 cm), Diam. of base: 5 1/8 in. (13 cm). Lent by Hubei Provincial Museum

Among the most popular subjects in Yuan decorative arts are historical figures (poets, philosophers, artists) with their favorite flowers or pets (usually birds). On this bottle are representations of the philosopher Zhou Dunyi, with a lotus; the recluse poet Lin Bu, with a crane; the poet Meng Haoran, with a prunus; and the calligrapher Wang Xizhi, with an orchid. A number of porcelain and silver bottles of the same period were decorated with this schema, with either the same or a variant set of figures.

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Jar with Lid in the Shape of a Pagoda, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China. Porcelain with underglaze iron and cobalt blue decoration (Jingdezhen ware); H. 16 5/8 in. (42.2 cm), Diam. of rim: 3 11/16 in. (9.3 cm), Diam. of foot: 4 1/16 in. (10.3 cm). Lent by Hubei Provincial Museum

In the early fourteenth century, when Jingdezhen potters first experimented with underglaze painted decoration, they followed the example of Cizhou ware and used iron as the colorant. Sometime in the 1340s, imported cobalt from Iran became available and blue-and-white porcelain was born. Both this piece and the next one illustrate the change from iron to cobalt.

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Bottle (Meiping), 14th century, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration (Jingdezhen ware); H. 16 1/2 in. (41.9 cm). Lent by Andrew and Denise Saul

This bottle exemplifies the elegant blue-and-white compositions that adorn Yuan-dynasty porcelain. The shoulder and midsection are covered with lush vines laden with large blossoms, a characteristic motif of the fourteenth century. The neck and foot, on the other hand, are painted with broad, almost square lotus petals; those at the neck contain auspicious symbols. The shape of the petals derives from Indo-Himalayan Buddhist imagery, offering further evidence of the impact of Tibetan traditions on the art of Yuan China.

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Plate with Qilin Motif, 14th century; Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China. Porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration (Jingdezhen ware). Asia Society, New York, The Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection of Asian Art

Motifs featuring an animal or mythical creature frolicking against a floral background are found in both porcelain and metalwork during the Yuan dynasty. They most likely derive from textiles produced in the eastern reaches of Central Asia in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Here, a qilin (a unicorn-like creature) appears with bamboo, morning glories, melons, and plantains—all symbols that convey wishes for blessings and good fortune. An inscription engraved on the outside of the foot ring documents the platter as one of the few Yuan-period examples known to have been preserved in India. It cites the name of the Indian Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1627–58), the patron of the famed Taj Mahal, and gives a date that corresponds to 1652/53, which is most likely when this treasured object entered his collection.

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Boys in a Lotus Pond, 13th–14th century, Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), China. Porcelain (qingbai ware). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Vincent Astor Foundation Gift, 2010 (2010.311)

"The world of Kubilai Khan" @ Metropolitan Museum New York, september 28, 2010 - january 2, 2011 www.metmuseum.org