Monk’s cap ewers derive their shape from Tibetan ewers made of metal or wood that were used in Buddhist ceremonies. They may have been placed in front of Buddhist altars filled with provisions or with water for use in ablutions, as is suggested in a somewhat later Tibetan painted textile depicting Avalokiteshvara and other deities with an altar in front, where bowls of fruit, a flower vase, covered pear-shaped bottles and a monk's cap ewer have been placed; see the exhibition catalogue Defining Yongle. Imperial Art in Early Fifteenth-Century China, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005, pl. 36 (fig. 1).
Ewers of this form appear to have been produced in porcelain since the Yuan dynasty (AD 1279-1368) and became a standard vessel shape of the imperial kilns in the Yongle (AD 1403-24) reign, when the emperor actively supported Tibetan Buddhism. In AD 1407 he invited the most influential Tibetan lama, Halima (AD 1384-1415) of the Karma-pa sect to the capital Nanjing to perform religious services for his deceased parents, and on the occasion commissioned lavish gifts for him from the imperial workshops. More than fifty porcelain ewers of this form were recovered from stratum five of the Yongle waste heaps of the Ming imperial kiln site, believed to date from around AD 1407, among them white pieces with incised Tibetan inscriptions like the present piece, or with other incised decoration or plain; see Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 62, where a white monk's cap ewer with flower scrolls from the site is illustrated, cat. no. 8 (fig. 2), and a blue-and-white counterpart with Tibetan inscription of Xuande mark and period, from the Xuande stratum, cat. no. 82.
Monk's cap ewers with Tibetan inscription represent by far the rarest version of this vessel type, more common being undecorated pieces or ones with lotus scroll and the bajixiang, undoubtedly because of the difficulty to find porcelain decorators able to render the Tibetan writing in Jingdezhen. The inscription, which is published in Wenwu 1981, no. 11, p. 76 can be translated:
Peace and tranquillity by day.
Peace and tranquillity by night.
Peace and tranquillity at midday.
Peace and tranquillity unceasing, by day and by night.
May the three treasures ensure peace and tranquillity.
For a white Yuan prototype of this form but of different proportions, excavated from a tomb in Haidian district, Beijing, and now in the Capital Museum, Beijing, see Zhongguo taoci quanji [Complete series on Chinese ceramics], Shanghai, 1999-2000, vol. 11, pl. 62 (fig. 3). Line drawings of ewers of this form of Yuan, Yongle, Xuande and Kangxi date, respectively, are compared in Geng Baochang, Ming Qing ciqi jianding [Appraisal of Ming and Qing porcelain], Hong Kong, 1993, p. 25, fig. 38, where another blue-and-white Xuande example is illustrated, p. 45, fig. 75.
A very similar white Yongle porcelain ewer from the collection of Stanley and Adele Herzman was included in the Yongle exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005, op.cit., pl. 5; one from the Eumorfopoulos collection was sold in our London rooms 30th May 1940, lot 314; another was sold in our New York rooms, 19th November 1982, lot 252; and one at Christie’s Hong Kong, 19th March 1991, lot 532.
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