Depictions of boys with lotus leaves and flowers represent a classic motif of the Song dynasty, known on a variety of objects and media including silver, bronze textile and various types of ceramics. Ann Barrott Wicks in Children in Chinese Art, Honolulu, 2002, pp. 6-15, traces the origins of this motif back to the decorative arts of the Roman Empire, and in particular to depictions of putti, plump boys that later came to be associated with paradise in Christian art. These designs were adopted in Sasanian and Central Asian art and were brought to China through the Silk Road. See for example a gilt-bronze cup, supposedly imported from Central Asia and attributed to the 5th century AD, unearthed in Datong, Shanxi province, and illustrated in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Ornament. The Lotus and The Dragon, London, 1984, fig. 15.
The motif was quickly adapted to suit Chinese religious and philosophical beliefs, and by the Tang dynasty (618-907) it had developed into a fertility symbol. In Chinese Buddhism the souls of those residing in Maitreya’s Pure Land, were believed to have been reborn through the calyx of a lotus flower. This theory may well have been influenced by the Shangqing school of Daoism and the belief that the visualisation of one’s embryonic state could lead to rebirth. In the eight century, depictions of boys and lotus began to appear outside religious contexts, and by the Song period they were believed to encourage the birth of sons and the continuation of a family line.
Dingyao dishes of this form and moulded with such lively and detailed motifs are rare. Two Dingyao bowls moulded with boys among scrolling vines, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, were included in the Museum’s Special Exhibition of Ting Ware White Porcelain, Taipei, 1987, cat. nos 65 and 66; another from the collection of H.J. Oppenheim, in the British Museum, London, is illustrated in Oriental Ceramics. The World’s Great Collections, vol. 5, Tokyo, 1981, pl. 61; and a fourth bowl also from the Carl Kempe collection, illustrated in Bo Gyllensvärd, op.cit., pl. 457, was sold in our London rooms, 14th May 2008, lot 264.
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