The cruciform mounted on a stepped base and painted with a square pattern is seemingly unique as both a motif and as a decorative strategy on ceramics. The pedestaled cross entered the area around Western Tibet in the 8th and 9th centuries via Nestorian Christians, as testified by textual records and images of the crosses carved into stone. In the early 20th century, the Tibetologist August Hermann Francke recorded images of these engraved Nestorian crosses in ‘Felseninschriften in Ladakh,’ Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, 1925, p. 371, pl. 2 (fig. 1). Some of the Western Tibetan Nestorian crosses feature the cross-and-pedestal with plant-like auxiliary lines or birds. In other words, they contain all of the elements seen on the ewer. The combination of cruciform and winged forms (both as angels and as birds) also appears on Nestorian stone stele of the Yuan dynasty, and on Yuan period small bronze pendants, which may have served as seals, clan markers, or personal adornments. A bronze pendant in the collection of the Hong Kong University Art Museum, for instance, takes the shape of a cross with diagonal lines connecting the roundels at each of its termini, its central roundel has a Buddhist swastika, and its upper roundel has a tree-of-life image. Images of this and related pendants are featured in Charlotte Chang, 'Nestorian Crosses of the Yuan Dynasty,' Asian Art Newspaper, 11 May 2016. The 'torma meeto' ('small god(dess)') pattern in Bhutanese weaving is similarly structured as a stepped pedestal supporting a cross topped with a tree-of-life, as illustrated in David K. Barker, Designs of Bhutan, Bangkok, 1985, p. 9, pl. 7 (fig. 2).
An alternative inspiration for the cruciform on the ewer may have been the Tibet Buddhist crossed-vajra (also known as the double-vajra), which symbolizes absolute stability in the universe. Many iterations of the crossed-vajra circulated in China and Tibet in the Ming dynasty. For example, it is represented with scrolling extensions issuing from its arms on a 16th century silver ewer from Eastern Tibet in the collection of the Newark Museum that is published in Valrae Reynolds, From the Sacred Realm: Treasures of Tibetan Art from the Newark Museum, New York, 1999, pl. 80. The crossed-vajra also appears on blue and white wares, such as the Chenghua period dish sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 30th October 2002, lot 278. Collectively, this evidence demonstrates that the form of a stepped pedestal surmounted by a cross issuing supplementary lines had precedents in the Sino-Himalayan artistic vocabulary leading up to the Ming dynasty when the ewer was created.
The squatting figure in the radiating medallion bears a strong resemblance to images of Garuda, the Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist King of the Birds. In Indian and Himalayan traditions, Garuda is depicted with wings, a beak, human arms, and either human or eagle-like legs. Myths identify him as the sworn enemy of snakes, and he therefore serves an apotropaic function. Garuda is also a guardian of wealth and treasures, and is associated with the sun and fire. The tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang (d. 1441) at Zhongxiang (Hubei) contained a gold plaque bearing an image of Garuda that is strikingly similar to that on the ewer, with the King of Birds squatting atop an interwoven network of snakes within a medallion, included in Fan Jeremy Zhang, Royal Taste: The Art of Princely Courts in Fifteenth-century China, New York, 2015, cat. no. 66 (fig. 3). At the same time, Garuda featured prominently in sculptural, painted, and textile arts of the Himalayas. Any of these might have been transmitted to Jingdezhen for use as a visual source for the figure represented on the present ewer.
A painted thangka from the latter half of the 13th century shows winged Garudas on either side of a crossed-vajra on a flat pedestal, as illustrated in Steven M. Kossak and Jane Casey Singer, Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet, New York, 1998, cat. no. 25. Although the thangka pre-dates the ewer by three centuries, it is possible that variants of this iconographical pairing continued into the Ming period and were transmitted to ceramic artisans at Jingdezhen.
The square pattern of the cruciform-and-pedestal motif may have been borrowed from textiles. The Bhutanese 'torma meeto' pattern is necessarily composed of small blocks due to the interweaving of threads in its construction. Additionally, there is evidence that Tibetans of the Ming dynasty used quilts of square patchwork and that contemporaneous Chinese artisans wove checkered polychrome silks that incorporated animal and auspicious motifs within the squares, as shown in Dieter Kuhn, ed., Chinese Silks, New Haven, 2012, pl. 8.36. Whether woven or quilted, Himalayan textiles could have provided the formal inspiration for the checkerboard pattern found on the ewer. These textiles could have also supplied the principal imagery applied to the ewer.
The form of the ewer identifies it as a product of the Jingdezhen kilns in the early 16th century. A slightly taller ewer of the same shape bearing an apocryphal four-character Xuande reign mark in the collection of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Toronto is illustrated in Patricia F. Ferguson, Cobalt Treasures: The Robert Murray Bell and Ann Walker Bell Collection of Chinese Blue and White Porcelain, Toronto, 2003, cat. no. 47. Another, also with an apocryphal Xuande mark, in the collection of the Ottema Kingma Foundation, the Netherlands is published in Eva Ströber, Ming Porcelain for a Globalized Trade, Stuttgart, 2013, cat. no. 54. A third example with this design and mark was sold in our London rooms, 13th/14th November 1972, lot 382. The aforementioned Eastern Tibetan silver ewer of the 16th century also takes this form.
With the exception of the Jiajing Emperor's reign, in the Ming dynasty the relationship between China and Tibet was one of suzerainty, with Tibet paying tribute to the Ming court and the court reciprocating by bestowing official titles and luxurious gifts on Tibetan lamas. This engendered a cultural climate in which religious and artistic ideas flowed across the Sino-Himalayan landmass. Porcelain designs of the Jingdezhen kilns reflect this exchange. For instance, the spout and mouth of the 'monk's cap' ewers of the Yongle period borrowed their form from the yellow hats worn by Tibetan lamaist monks. An example of this type of ewer in the collection of the British Museum is published in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, pl. 3:2. The same volume includes an image of a blue and white dish produced at Jingdezhen during the Zhengtong or Tianshun reigns which combines Chinese floral and diaper patterns with Tibetan Sanskrit text, pl. 5:21. Other Ming dynasty porcelain wares that fuse Chinese and Tibetan characteristics were preserved in the Qing court collection, now in the Palace Museum, Beijing and are illustrated in Baochang Geng, ed., Gugong bowuguan cang wenwu zhenpin quanji: qinghua youlihong / The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red, vol. 2, Hong Kong, 2000, cat. nos 32, 33, 35, 205, 210, and 211. These are just a few, out of many, examples of porcelains produced at the official Ming kilns in response to Sino-Himalayan relations of the period.
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