The Qianlong reign (1736-1795) was a splendid period during which Tibetan Buddhism and its ritual played an important role. It was a time when imperial patronage of this doctrine was highest, sparking an unprecedented artistic brilliancy. This pair of exquisitely decorated ewers encapsulates the spirit of this enthused creativity, radiating a spiritual elegance and opulence characteristic of many Tibetan Buddhist artworks of the Qianlong era.
As a zealous follower of the religion, the Qianlong Emperor did not spare any effort or expense on the renovation and construction of monasteries and temples in Beijing, the Yuanmingyuan Summer Palace and Chengde, in the far northeast of Hebei province, where the Manchu rulers had established their summer capital. At Chengde, for example, the Emperor built the magnificent Putuozongcheng miao, a replica of the Lhasa Potala palace on a smaller scale, where he received the Dalai and Panchen Lamas from Tibet with great pomp and splendor.
Within the confines of the Forbidden City, the Qianlong Emperor, likewise, erected many Tibetan Buddhist places of worship. One of the most private chapels seems to have been the Yuhuage (Pavillion of Raining Flowers) in the northwestern part of the inner city, where he is believed to have held ritual performances on behalf of the imperial family, in particular his beloved mother, the Empress Dowager Xiaosheng (1691-1771), who was a profound devotee. Among the many religious art objects housed there, were remarkable thangkas depicting the Emperor as an emanation of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
These thangkas show the Qianlong Emperor’s commitment to Tibetan Buddhism and how he saw himself not only as a Chinese monarch, but also as a Tibetan religious leader. A similar thangka, now in the Palace Museum, Beijing, but once kept in the Puning si (Temple of Universal Tranquility), one of the Wai ba miao (Eight Outer Temples) at Chengde, was included in the exhibition China. The Three Emperors 1662-1795, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, cat. no. 47. The painting portrays him seated at the centre of an assembly of Buddhist deities, wearing the monastic robes and hat of the Tibetan Gelugpa (Yellow Hat order) and holding the wheel of law in his left hand while forming the gesture of argument with his right. The attributes of Manjushri, a sword and the sutra of Wisdom are painted above his shoulders.
Such an elaborate iconography clearly required the contribution of Tibetan experts who worked jointly with Chinese artists at the imperial workshops. The palace administration of the phenomenal production of Tibetan Buddhist artworks, which was in the hands of Manchu officials from the Neiwufu (Imperial Household) and Tibetan and Mongolian lamas, was centralized at the Zhongzheng dian (Hall of Central Righteousness), in the northwestern corner of the Forbidden City. Artisans at the various workshops were overwhelmed by the great number of commissions on the part of the Qing court. At the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, craftsmen were equally submerged by the thousands of orders of ritual objects to furnish the numerous temples and shrines and to produce gifts for family and court members as well as for Tibetan prelates.
The present ewers were important ceremonial implements used in purification ceremonies, to sprinkle blessed water dipped with saffron over Buddhist initiates. Modelled after Tibetan metal prototypes which would have been offered as diplomatic gifts to the Emperor, they were of the highest quality and craftmanship, compare, for example, a gold ewer with carved design, illustrated in Shenyang Gugong Bowuyuan wenwu jingpin huicui/The Gathering of Select Gems from Shenyang Imperial Palace Museum Collection, Liaoning, 1991, p.43; and a pair of 17th-century silver and gilt copper vessels, finely decorated with bajixiang emblems and gilt beaded bands, included in the exhibition of Sotheby’s and Rossi & Rossi, Sacred Symbols. The Ritual Art of Tibet, The Fuller Building, New York, 1999, cat. no. 13.
When not in use, these vessels would be kept on altars, attired with a coloured vestment, see for such an example the exhibition catalogue Xue yu cangzhen. Xizang wenwu jinghua/Treasures from Snow Mountains. Gems of Tibetan Cultural Relics, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2001, no. 74.
Challenged to imitate these extremely complex metal forms, the Jingdezhen craftsmen strove to meet the demanding requirements of the Qianlong Emperor. The present ewers with their typical shape of round, curved and angled profiles are distinctively striking. The gilt beading, a direct reference to their metal prototype, make them even more extravagant, yet extremely refined, with their sophisticated doucai design, celebrating the Chenghua (1465-1487) style of polychrome washes in red, yellow, green and purple within finely drawn outlines in underglaze blue.
The current ewers’ design of ribbon-tied Buddhist emblems borne on lotus sprays is also known of Chenghua porcelain, compare, for example, a doucai bowl with this decoration excavated from the imperial kiln site at Jingdezhen, included in the exhibition The Emperor’s broken china. Reconstructing Chenghua porcelain, Sotheby’s, London, 1995, cat. no. 18.
Doucai ewers of this type appear to be exceedingly rare and it is even more unusual to find a matching pair such as the present example. One individual doucai vessel from the collection of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, is illustrated in He Li, Chinese Ceramics, London, 1996, pl. 162, with a large flower scroll as main design and different embellished spout and makara head; another was sold in these rooms, 2nd May 2000, lot 677, similar to the present lot, but with a painted spout.
From the Qing court collection, similar ewers with various related decorations are known, in iron-red and underglaze blue; in famille-rose with gilt on a green ground; in gold relief on a green ground; and in gold on a dark-blue ground, illustrated in Jin yin tong fojiao gongju tezhan/A Special Exhibition of Buddhist Gilt Votive Objects, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 95.
Other examples exist in underglaze-blue and iron-red with dragons, included in the exhibition Tianminlou cang ci/ Chinese Porcelain. The S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, cat. no. 118; in famille-rose on a green ground in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, illustrated in Rose Kerr, Chinese Ceramics. Porcelain of the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911, London, 1986, pl. 101; and in famille-rose on a gold ground, included in the exhibition The Wonders of the Potter’s Palette, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1984, cat. no. 68, from the collection of K.S. Lo.
At auction were sold in these rooms, three famille-rose white-ground ewers, 26th October 1993, lot 254; 1st November 1994, lot 194; and 8th October, 2006, lot 1122; and two famille-rose gold-ground examples, 25th November 1981, lot 275; and 19th November 1986, lot 272 and again 26th October 2003, lot 107.
For later examples, compare two famille-rose Daoguang-marked (1821-1850) ewers, from the Simon Kwan collection, included in the exhibition Joined Colors. Decoration and Meaning in Chinese Porcelain, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., cat. no. 50; the other sold in these rooms, 2nd May 2000, lot 723.
Compare also altar vases of related form known as ‘grass storage jars’ (bumpa), which were used to contain sacred plants for Tibetan Buddhist rituals. They share with the present ewers the globular body and drum-like upper section, but lack spouts. See, for example, a pair of famille-rose bumpa jars sold in our New York rooms, 24th March 1998, lot 637; another single vessel on a pink ground from the Fonthill Heirlooms, illustrated in Hugh Moss, Yuzhi/By Imperial Command. An Introduction to Ch’ing Imperial Painted Enamels, Hong Kong, 1976, pl. 84; and a silver example with gold plaiting, covered in cloth, from the Qing court collection, included in the exhibition Gugong zhencang Zang chuan fojiao wenwu/Tibetan Buddhism Relics of the Palace Museum. Lightness of Essence, Macao Museum of Art, Macao, 2003, cat. no. 86.
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