A closely related moonflask was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 30th May 2005, lot 1451, and again in these rooms, 8th October 2013, lot 222; and another was sold in these rooms, 24th November 1981, lot 79. Slightly smaller moonflasks of this type include one in the collection of the Ottoman sultans in Turkey, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, London, 1986, vol. 2, pl. 616; one from the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, included in the exhibition Seika jiki ten [Exhibition of blue and white porcelain from the Shanghai Museum], Matsuya Ginza, Tokyo, 1988, cat. no. 16; another, from the Jingguantang and Huang Ding Xuan collections, included in the exhibition In Pursuit of Antiques. Thirty-Fifth Anniversary Exhibition of the Min Chiu Society, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1995, cat. no. 124, sold in these rooms, 29th October 1991, lot 29, and twice at Christie's Hong Kong, 3rd November 1996, lot 545, and, 28th November 2006, lot 1512; and a fourth sold in our Paris rooms, 18th December 2009, lot 65.
This double-handled, oval-sectioned shape is probably derived from pottery vessels that can ultimately be traced to the 18th Dynasty of Egypt (c.1543-1292 BC), but continued to be popular there for centuries. Examples from 6th/7th century Roman Egypt were known as St Menas flasks since, filled with oils or holy water, they served Christian pilgrims to the tomb of St Menas near Alexandria as souvenirs, which gave rise to the term 'pilgrims' flasks'. It was around that time that such flasks (bianhu) arrived in China, probably with Sogdian merchants, and were copied in lead-glazed earthenware. When the Jingdezhen potters became interested in this shape in the Yongle period, they adapted it in various ways, with nature designs well matched to a more rounded form and this formal design perfectly suited to this somewhat angled shape.
The star-shaped rosettes are composed in a geometric manner that seems designed to discourage any potential evocation of naturalistic imagery. Both its formality and abstraction are highly unusual in a Chinese context and are probably also due to Middle Eastern inspiration. While the same can be said for the enclosing chevron and classic scroll borders, the flower-scroll band at the neck and the small floral sprigs at the handles on the other hand are in tune with the traditional Chinese design repertoire. It admirably serves to mellow the rigidity of the overall design.
Related geometric decoration in the early Ming period is also found on other blue and white porcelains from the imperial kilns, particularly in the interior or around the exterior of bowls: four such bowls of the Yongle period in the Palace Museum, Beijing, are illustrated in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. 1, pls 61-4.
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