This remarkable basin, with its distinctive angular shape and abstract central design, appears to be unique, but belongs to the phenomenal range of strikingly shaped and decorated vessels of Islamic inspiration developed by the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen in the Yongle period (1403-1424). They represent one of the most important innovations of the kilns’ repertoire in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The unusual form with its straight sides, rising from a flat base and drawn in towards a wide everted rim, has clearly not been invented on the potter’s wheel, but – like many Yongle vessel shapes – developed by Middle Eastern metalsmiths.
The strong connections between the Yongle Emperor’s court and Middle Eastern, particularly the Timurid, rulers enabled a royal exchange of goods with Islamic countries in general and thus brought Chinese potters into contact with Middle Eastern metalwork. Brass basins of similar form, used together with ewers to wash hands before and after meals, were produced especially in Syria and Egypt in the 13th and 14th centuries. A famous Mamluk silver-inlaid basin in the Louvre, Paris, made around 1240 for the Sultan of Egypt, was included in the exhibition The Arts of Islam, the Arts Council of Great Britain, Hayward Gallery, London, 1976, cat. no. 198, together with a Syrian gilded and enamelled glass basin of the same form, made around 1325, cat. no. 137; an Egyptian brass basin in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is illustrated in the Museum’s exhibition catalogue Defining Yongle. Imperial Art in Early Fifteenth-Century China, New York, 2005, p. 29, fig. 10, together with a Chinese blue-and-white counterpart, pl. 2.
The blue-and-white porcelain versions made by the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen must have been highly exotic at the Chinese court, but appear to have been much in demand, since they were produced in different sizes and in various different designs, mostly in the Yongle period, but continuing into the Xuande reign (1426-1435). We do not know exactly for whom they were intended. Although they would seem to have made perfect imperial gifts to Middle Eastern potentates, fewer examples are preserved in royal collections abroad – one in the collection of the Ottoman Sultans (Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. 2, no. 611), none in the collection of the Safavid Shahs (the Ardabil Shrine collection) – than in the Chinese court collections (at least three in Taipei and two in Beijing, as listed below). One example of Xuande mark and period and copies of Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795) marks and period equally suggest their use at the Chinese court.
While the patterns around the sides and rim are Chinese in style, the centres are decorated with an abstract, geometrically divided, six- or eight-pointed rosette that evokes Middle Eastern ornament. Several different rosettes have been used on these porcelain basins. The present motif, which does not appear to have been noted otherwise, is made up of interlaced bands that form a star shape, with a second, smaller star at its centre. It is probably not directly copying a Middle Eastern model; rather, the porcelain painters are likely to have studied the general idea of such designs, which are ubiquitous in Middle Eastern art, appearing on silk, bronze, pottery, wood and other media (e.g. The Arts of Islam, op.cit., cat. nos 9, 177, 393 and 440), and then endeavoured to come up with a version of their own. The ‘construction’ of such patterns in the Middle East with compass and ruler was, however, totally alien to the Chinese approach to ornamentation, which is based on free-hand drawing with a brush. Therefore, the outcome is rather different. At least four different complex rosettes were drawn up at the imperial kilns for these basins, besides the present one two hexafoil versions, one made up of curly, the other of pointed elements, plus a version where the painters took refuge at more familiar elements and composed a rosette from eight petal panels filled with emblems.
The present basin differs in most of its designs from comparable pieces. The inner and outer sides of these basins tend to be decorated with a composite flower scroll, which on the present piece has at least on the outside been replaced by a lotus scroll, the usual floral sprigs under the rim by different freely floating florets.
A majority of these Yongle basins show a rim decorated with undulating waves interspersed with swirling eddies. Borders of carnations, as seen here, seem to have been considered particularly suitable for pieces of Islamic shapes. They appear, for example, on the necks of tall ewers with angular spout (see Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. 1, pl. 92) and, together with asters, on the neck of ‘pilgrim flasks’, which are decorated on their sides with similar rosettes as here seen in the centre (see the flask from the Edward T. Chow collection and the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, sold in these rooms, 5th April 2017, lot 3608, fig. 1).
The present carnation border also differs from other versions. While Chinese flower designs at this period are characterized by their naturalistic rendering, carefully matching blooms with the right fruits and leaves, the present border seems to have been deliberately stylized to a fanciful flower pattern, perhaps conceived of as being Islamic: small flower-heads of pinks are combined with little dotted blossoms, and leaves stylized to resemble ginkgo leaves. Borders with similar dotted florets appear also on other extraordinary vessels, for example, on the rim of Yongle holy water vessels such as the piece from the Pilkington collection (Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 6th April 2016, lot 15); and on oblong writing boxes such as the example in the Sir Percival David collection (see Jessica Harrison-Hall, 'A New Concept for a Classic Collection. The Ming Ceramics in the Sir Percival David Collection at the British Museum', Arts of Asia, vol. 39, no. 3, May-June 2009, p. 101, pl. 10). These are not mainstream designs of the imperial kilns.
The closest comparisons to the present basin are two varieties with rim borders of pinks, which are both very differently treated, however, one in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, the other in the Palace Museum Beijing. The piece in Taiwan, with a more curly hexafoil rosette in the centre and a rim border of pinks and large serrated leaves, was included in the Museum’s exhibition Shi yu xin: Mingdai Yongle huangdi de ciqi/Pleasingly Pure and Lustrous: Porcelains from the Yongle Reign (1403-1424) of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 2017, catalogue pp. 131-3 (fig. 2), together with two Yongle basins with wave rim borders, one with the same hexafoil rosette, pp. 128-30, the other with a more pointed rosette, pp 134-5, and two Qing copies with wave rim border, one of Yongzheng, the other of Qianlong mark and period, pp. 162-5. The basin in Beijing, with a rosette made up of petal panels and emblems, and a rim border of pinks among thin frilly leaf scrolls, is published in Geng, op.cit., 2002, vol. 1, pl. 27 (fig. 3), together with a version with wave border and a curly hexafoil rosette, pl. 28.
A basin of this form of Xuande mark and period, with the more pointed hexafoil rosette, has a rim border of quatrefoil panels with floral sprigs and scroll motifs; see Yamato Bunkakan shozōhin zuhan mokuroku 7. Chūgoku tōji/Chinese Ceramics from the Museum Yamato Bunkakan Collection, Illustrated Catalogue Series no. 7, Nara, 1977, no. 134.
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