With their strict radial symmetry that ideally suits a circular vessel, geometrically laid out patterns as seen on this piece are among the most magnificent Yuan porcelain designs. Like all such designs, the present pattern is unique – even though such decoration would seem ideally suited to repetition. In having part of this design raised in relief, the present dish is unlike any other and arguably the most important example of this group known to be extant. In its impressive shape, bold and rich design, masterful execution and bright coloration the dish embodies the peak of Jingdezhen artistry in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368).
The intricate web of this ravishing pattern is a tour-de-force of porcelain decoration and a showpiece of the adaptability of Jingdezhen’s porcelain painters. Taking Middle Eastern patterns as their model, they transferred a style that would normally be executed with compass, ruler and pen to a surface that had to be freely painted with a brush. No mistakes were permitted, as the unfired porcelain surface immediately absorbs the cobalt-blue pigment, like paper does with ink.
The complex division of the large vessel surface into smaller units, with only one guiding circle in the center done on the wheel, was an ambitious project. On the present piece, the relief-molding of the peony and lotus-filled panels defined the basic layout. Although other rare dishes exist with relief moulding, this is mostly in the form of flower scrolls or more rarely petal panels around the well, and goes with blue-on-white nature scenes in the center, that are one-directional and dictate the side from which the dish needs to be seen. The filigree scrollwork filling the ground between the panels is admirably executed, forming a border around the cloud-collar panels, and with separate sprigs filling the ‘spandrels’ between florets and wave panels.
Fig. 1 Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. 2, no. 552. © Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul.
Although the derivation of this type of decoration from the strictly geometrically oriented motifs developed in and current all over the Middle East is obvious, none of the Chinese versions appear to copy a foreign model directly, and all employ quintessentially Chinese motifs in the composition. In the Yuan dynasty, when China was open to inspiration from abroad, the porcelain painters absorbed the essence of these foreign designs and, motivated by their spirit, created their own versions.
Several dishes exist with fully geometrically organized designs reminiscent of the present one, but without any molding in relief. Among the closest designs is the famous dish from the Ottoman royal collection in Istanbul, with six wave-filled ruyi panels among classic scrollwork, fully decorated with abstract designs except for some peach blossoms floating on waves, and emblems in similar petal panels in the center, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. 2, no. 552 (fig. 1); and a dish in the Los Angeles County Museum, with six ruyi panels filled with lotus sprays and various creeping plants on a wave ground, centered around a similar medallion of petal panels, included in the exhibition Chinese Ceramics: From the Prehistoric Period through Ch'ien Lung, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1952, cat. no. 262 (fig. 2).
Other related dishes are, for example, a piece with four ruyi panels filled with lotus plants from the Ardabil Shrine, illustrated in John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington, D.C., 1956 (rev. ed. London, 1981), pl. 16; a dish with six ruyi panels filled with abstract patterns around a center with water birds in a lotus pond, discovered in Syria, published in John Carswell, ‘Şīn in Syria’, Iran, vol. XVII, 1979, pls I-V, together with the Topkapi Saray dish, pl. VI and three related fragmentary pieces from a Tughluq palace in Delhi, pls VII-IX; and one with six ruyi panels filled with creatures and lotuses among stylized waves on an overall wave ground, recovered in Togtoh county, Huhehot, Inner Mongolia and included in the exhibition Yuan qinghua/Blue and White of the Yuan, Capital Museum, Beijing, 2009, catalogue pp. 137-9.
Fig. 2 Chinese Ceramics: From the Prehistoric Period through Ch'ien Lung, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1952, cat. no. 262. © Los Angeles County Museum
For dishes with other types of relief-molded design, see two with flower scrolls around the well in Topkapi Saray, illustrated in Krahl, op.cit. cat. nos 561 and 562; and three dishes with petal panels around the well, one offered by Eskenazi, one from the Richard Bryant Hobart collection in the Harvard Art Museum, and one from in the Jingguantang collection, Hong Kong, published in Regina Krahl, ‘Snow Lion with Palm Trees’, Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition: Twelve Chinese Masterworks, Eskenazi, London, 2010, pp. 21-22.
A series of related dish fragments with geometrically arranged patterns, partly in white on blue have also been recovered from the Red Sea, but none with any molding, see Regina Krahl, ‘Yuan Blue-and-white from West and South Asia, with Special Reference to the Red Sea’, Yuandai qinghua ciqi guoji xueshu yantaohui lunwen gao/International Symposium on Yuan Blue-and-white Porcelain, Shanghai, 2012, pp. 470, figs 1-9; together with fragments with molded petal panels, p. 471, figs 11 and 12; and with molded flower scrolls, p. 472, figs 13 and 14.
As a good-luck symbol, the ruyi motif predates the Yuan dynasty, but the joined ruyi collar found on Yuan dishes may be derived from Nomad fashion of the time. As a dress feature, a cloud collar can be seen, for example, in the famous painting Lady Wenji’s Return to the Han Court by the 13th-century Jin dynasty (1115-1234) court painter Zhang Yu, in the Jilin Provincial Museum, which shows the Chinese lady in foreign dress with an elaborate cloud collar, perhaps embroidered in relief, draped over her clothing, see Zhongguo meishu quanji: Huihua bian [Complete series on Chinese art: Painting], vol. 3, Beijing, 1988, pl. 59, with a detail, p. 163. A similar collar is also worn by one of the ladies depicted on horseback on the Yuan jar in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, which was recently included in the exhibition Yulan shencai. Yuandai qinghua ciqi teji/Splendors in Smalt. Art of Yuan Blue-and-white Porcelain, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2012, cat. no. 3.