The long and dangerous overland route across the Taklamakan desert from the capital Chang’an, modern Xi’an, to Central Asia and the Middle East known as the Silk Road linked the heart of China to distant cultural spheres and enabled a flourishing exchange of goods and ideas. Chang’an was an international metropolis without par, the largest city on earth, with an estimated population of one million inhabitants that included sizeable communities of foreign residents from all over Asia. Foreign merchants offered foreign goods in the city’s exotic Western market, and foreign embassies brought foreign artefacts to the court. China’s craftsmen thus came into contact with an abundance of styles and techniques, which they quickly had to adopt in this competitive climate.
The first half of the Tang dynasty saw an unprecedented rise in the ingenuity and skills of the country’s artisans who strove to meet the rising demands of an affluent and discerning aristocracy. In no other period of China’s long history did its potters understand so successfully to create luxury items out of mere clay, as this striking ewer exemplifies. Superbly designed and exactingly executed, it is an object with a dramatic impact. Its crisp profile is composed of a daring combination of cylindrical, convex and concave outlines. Its sprig-moulded floral and foliate appliques, freely modelled rope-twist handle and well applied, splashed sancai glazes, document the potters’ intention to create a masterpiece, embellished as lavishly as possible.
The application of sprig-moulded reliefs on ceramics evokes the encrustation of precious metal objects with jewels and pearls; compare a Tang bejewelled gold sarira container excavated from the remains of Qingshan Temple in Lintong county, Shaanxi province, illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji. Gongyi meishu bian [Complete series on Chinese art: Arts and crafts section], vol. 10, Beijing, 1987, pl. 76, and in Sui Tang wenhua [Sui and Tang culture], Hong Kong, 1990, p. 275, pl. 5. The technique which became popular on ceramics in the Northern Qi period (550-577) period, when Central Asian styles began to exert a strong influence on Chinese crafts, has been discussed by Suzanne G. Valenstein in relation to an earlier green-glazed jar with such decoration in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (“Preliminary Findings on a 6th-Century Earthenware Jar”, Oriental Art, vol. VLIII, no. 4, 1997/8, pp. 2-13).
The arabesque shapes are reminiscent of the jewellery worn by Buddhist deities; compare, for example, the jewellery adorning the famous white marble torso of Avalokitesvara excavated in Xi’an, illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji. Diaosu bian [Complete series on Chinese Art: Sculpture section], vol. 4, Beijing, 1988, pl. 53 (fig. 1).
Such fanciful floral and foliate palmette motifs are ubiquitous on early Tang dynasty works of art and appear in a multitude of different versions on artefacts of various media; see, for example, the trappings of a Tang pottery horse excavated in Gongxian, Henan province, ibid., pl. 156; the painted decoration on the armor of a Tang wooden guardian figure excavated from a tomb dated in accordance with AD 688 in Astana, Turfan, Xinjiang, included in the exhibition China. Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2004-5, cat. no. 180; similar decoration on a bronze guardian figure from Baoji, Shaanxi province, ibid., cat. no. 230; designs on pieces of woven silk, again from Astana, one of the late 6th/early 7th century, another from a tomb dated in accordance with AD 778, ibid., cat. nos 235 and 242; on an embroidered silk saddle blanket from Reshui, Dulan, Qinghai province, ibid., cat. no. 247; or on a Tang bronze mirror from Qishan county, Shaanxi province, included in the exhibition Treasures of Chang’an. Capital of the Silk Road, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1993-4, cat. no. 33, to name only a few examples.
Although no other vessel of this form and decoration appears to exist, this ewer belongs to an extremely small group of spectacular bird’s-head vessels decorated in this way with appliques. On the present ewer the bird’s head is reduced to a minute ‘beak’ opposite the handle. The dramatic nature of the ornate designs is thus particularly well balanced by the serene, clearly structured shape of the vessel.
Five related ewers are known, all more complex in shape, with a globular mouth with distinct bird’s-head spout, a foliate stalk as handle, and the foot with an angled edge or raised ridge: one with the same large quatrefoil and bud-shaped appliques, in the Tokyo National Museum, is illustrated in Satō Masahiko and Hasebe Gakuji, eds, Sekai tōji zenshū/Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 11: Sui Tō/Sui and T'ang Dynasties, Tokyo, 1976, col. pl. 200 (fig. 2); one with the same bud-shaped appliques combined with roundels, in the Aso collection, ibid., col. pl. 199; and three with different appliques and a band of lotus petals around the shoulder, one in the Hakutsuru Art Museum, Kobe, ibid., col. pl. 35; one from the collections of L. Wannieck, Paris, Jan Pincket, Belgium, and a Japanese private collection, ibid., pl. 117, included in the Inaugural Exhibition: Early Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, Eskenazi, London, 1972, cat. no. 32, illustrated on the cover, and recently sold in our London rooms, 13th May 2015, lot 104 (£ 2,725,000) (fig. 3); and the last published in Mizuno Seiji, Tōki zenshū [Complete works on ceramics], vol. 25: Tō sansai [Tang three-colour], Tokyo, 1961, col. pl. 1. Bird’s-head ewers, with the beak sometimes forming a functional spout, sometimes representing a purely decorative feature, became popular in the Six Dynasties’ period (220-589), but their significance is still not understood.
The present vessel is also remarkable for the evenly applied sancai glazes, which fully cover the vessel rather than stopping in an uneven line well above the base and thus revealing the unglazed body, as is more common on Tang pottery vessels. Related ceramics with sancai glazes and applied designs – but apparently no vessel of this complex shape or elaborate decoration – have been excavated at the Gongxian kilns at Huangye in Gongyi, Henan province, the best researched, but probably not the only major sancai pottery kiln site of the Tang dynasty; see Huangye Tang sancai yao/Three-colour Glazed Pottery Kilns of the Tang Dynasty at Huangye, Beijing, 2000, passim, and col. pl. 54: 4 for a sancai pottery fragment with a related foliate applique.
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