modelled after a Middle Eastern metal prototype, elegantly potted with a flattened spherical body rising to a waisted neck and a pear-shaped upper bulb, set with two strap handles accentuated by a central raised ridge and a leaf-shaped terminal, the domed circular front and back deftly painted in tones of deep cobalt with a formal rosette centred by a yin-yang medallion within a ring of petal lappets, surrounded by a radiating eight-pointed starburst of alterning foliate and floral motifs, the larger leaves dotted at the apex, all within a formal 'half-cash' diaper border around the edge, the upper bulb picked out with a narrow band of aster and carnation between double lines repeated at the base of the neck and rim, the handles outlined with double fillets and decorated with a spray of peony at the lower end, above two blue lines running along the flat sides, covered overall with a glossy glaze of fine, smooth texture, the base unevenly glazed and the oval foot ring left unglazed
This moon flask belongs to a group of vessels which both in shape and decoration represented a new departure for Chinese porcelain and which derived their inspiration from abroad. The geometric star-shaped medallion which is centred on a yin-yang symbol, consists of curved bands and pointed tips vaguely reminiscent of leaves and buds and the surrounding border equally consists of petal elements. Their rigid, formal arrangement, however, seems designed to discourage any evocation of representational forms and is probably of Middle Eastern inspiration. Only the narrow flower-scroll band on the bulb and small floral sprays at the handles seem to derive from the traditional Chinese design repertoire. The delicate combination of minute asters and carnations in this band is particularly pretty and otherwise rare. It admirably serves to mellow the strict geometry of the overall design.
Similar abstract spiky motifs appear, for example, in the interior or around the exterior of contemporary blue-and-white bowls; see four such bowls of the Yongle period in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], vol. 1, Beijing, 2002, pls. 61-4. The shape seems to be ultimately derived from Near or Middle Eastern pottery or metal flasks, although no close counterpart has so far come to light.
Flasks of this type, which are also known with a slightly different rosette design, come in two different shapes, with and without a Xuande reign mark, possibly distinguishing Yongle (AD 1403-24) and Xuande (AD 1426-35) versions. While both versions were probably made in both periods, the present type may represent the slightly later Yongle version, its pleasing, harmonious proportions probably reflecting a re-calibration of the original shape, which is slightly taller and has a more elongated bulb (fig. 1). The taller shape is more often unmarked, whereas the present form, with its more pronounced pear-shaped bulb, is more frequently found with a Xuande reign mark (fig. 2).
A similar flask from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Geng Baochang, ed., op. cit., pl. 85; another in the Shanghai Museum, in Wang Qingzheng, Underglaze Blue and Red, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 52; both are attributed to the Xuande reign. Another similar flask from the Ardabil Shrine is in the National Museum of Iran, Teheran, published in Oriental Ceramics: The World’s Great Collections, Tokyo, New York, and San Francisco, 1980-82, vol. 4, col. pl. 58. For a similar flask of Xuande mark and period from the Sir Percival David Collection in the British Museum, London, see Stacey Pierson, Blue and White for China. Porcelain Treasures in the Percival David Collection, London, 2004, pl. 19 (fig. 2).
A similar flask from the collection of Major Lindsay Hay was sold in our London rooms, 25th June 1946, lot 62; another sold in these rooms, 18th May 1982, lot 148, was included in the exhibition Chinese Porcelain. The S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, cat. no. 14.
For flasks of this design with more elongated neck compare an unmarked example excavated from the waste heaps of the Ming Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen included in the exhibition Jingdezhen chutu Ming chu guanyao ciqi / Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, cat. no. 65 (fig. 1); or one in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. II, no. 616; and a flask of Xuande mark and period in the Palace Museum, Beijing, in Geng Baochang, op. cit., pl. 84.
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