This extraordinary porcelain bowl is not only an exquisite masterpiece of early 15th-century porcelain production at the apex of its quality, with its elegant form and superbly articulated lotus design in rich cobalt-blue, but also an important ritual purification vessel created by the Xuande court for the personal use of the Emperor or a high Tibetan lama. Preserved in perfect condition, it is an outstanding legacy of the early Ming court and reveals the Xuande Emperor's deep interest in Tibetan Buddhism.
The Xuande Emperor, influenced in his religious outlook by his grandfather, the Yongle Emperor, remained close to those Buddhist monks who had been summoned to the capital during the previous reign. The Xuande Emperor was especially close to Indian and Tibetan Buddhist monks and clearly preferred esoteric Buddhism. The Tibetan lamas Palden Tashi (1377-after 1452) and Shakya Yeshe (1354-1435, fig. 1), who had been invited to the court during the Yongle reign, also enjoyed the favour of the Xuande Emperor.
In the first year of the Xuande period (1426), Palden Tashi was promoted from Senglusi zuochanjiao (Left Interpreter of Teachings of the Central Buddhist Registry) to Jingjue ciji Daguoshi (Grand National Preceptor of Pure Consciousness and Benevolent Salvation). Palden Tashi performed multiple empowerment rites on the Xuande Emperor and was charged by him to translate into Chinese such texts as Commentary of the Hevajra Tantra, Ritual of the Mahacakra-Vajrapani Mandala, and Ritual of the Sarvajna Mandala. Shakya Yeshe was a disciple of Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) and was received by the Yongle Emperor in Nanjing as a representative of his teacher, earning the title of National Preceptor. In the 4th year of the Xuande period (1429), the Emperor summoned Shakya Yeshe to Beijing and installed him at Daciensi. It is recorded that his healing powers cured the emperor that year. In the 9th year (1434), the Xuande Emperor gave Shakya Yeshe the title Daci fawang (Great Compassion Dharma King) along with a kesi thangka with a portrait of the latter. Throughout the reign, gilded sculptures and porcelains based on Tibetan designs or with Tibetan inscriptions continued to be created, both as gifts for visiting lamas and for the use of the Xuande court.
The interior of the current bowl is inscribed with the mantra Om Ah Hung Ha Ho Hri, each seed syllable intricately inscribed in underglaze blue and skilfully depicted as if emanating from an individual lotus bloom, all interconnected by a continuous pattern of undulating stems. The mantra reveals the purpose of the bowl. It would have been used for tsok, a Tibetan practice that encompasses a number of merit-making rituals, all of which are somewhat propitiatory towards the Vajrayana pantheon of Buddhas, protectors, dakinis and gurus, and are performed to accumulate merit. Like every Tibetan Buddhist prayer and ritual, the practice is also dedicated to all sentient beings. The seed syllables compose the mantra which would be recited during the tsok. Each of the seed syllables has a complex and manifold meaning, but all can be synthesised. The first three (OM AH HUNG) represent the body, speech and mind of the Buddha (and buddhas/all enlightened beings) while the last three (HA HO HRI) are expressions of pure bliss and delight. Together they purify and multiply the nourishment.
As a bowl this is designated for the type of tsok that involves the gathering of food that will then be purified and offered to the deities by way of the practitioners' blessing and consumption. During this process a sacramental meal is prepared in accordance with a particular sadhana or drub-thab ('method of accomplishment'), which is a ritual and meditation script. During this process the practitioner imagines his or her own body as the mandala and the deities as residing within that mandala, or identifies with one particular meditational deity recommended by his or her guru. It is a practice in realising non-duality and the buddha nature within one’s human body. It is reserved, however, for serious Vajrayana practitioners who have been initiated. The bowl could have been created as a gift for Shakya Yeshe or another high Tibetan lama, but as it is recorded that the Xuande Emperor attended empowerment rites with Palden Tashi, the bowl could also have been created for the emperor’s personal use.
No other bowl of this exact design appears to be recorded in any private or museum collection. However, another Tibetan-inscribed Xuande blue and white bowl of similar form was sold in these rooms, 23rd October 2005, lot 338 (fig. 2). The exterior of the smaller (15 cm) bowl is similarly painted with a continuous floral scroll, the interior with a larger stylised Indian flower encircled by a longer version of the mantra on the current bowl, indicating it was created for the same ritual function. See also another Xuande bowl of this type, its exterior decorated with billows and lotus scrolls, included in the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsuan-te Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, pl. 64; and a third related example sold in these rooms, 31st October 2004, lot 161.
Flowers are symbols of prosperity and longevity, and the flowers represented on this bowl all resemble variations of lotus and carnation. It is extremely rare for a bowl to be decorated with a flower scroll of this combination, although similar flower scrolls can be found on other Xuande vessels. See a Xuande flask painted with a related flower scroll motif from the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan: Taoci juan [Complete masterpieces of Chinese cultural relics: Ceramics volume], Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 677. Other Tibetan-inscribed blue and white porcelains of the Xuande period include a group of five extant blue and white stem bowls, one of which was sold in these rooms, 8th April 2009, lot 1671 (fig. 3), and a wucai and underglaze-blue stem bowl with dragon design, from the Sakya Monastery, included in the Shanghai Museum exhibition, exhibition Treasures from snow Mountains. Gems of Tibetan Cultural Relics, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2001, cat. no. 94, where on p. 183, it is noted that it was bestowed by the Ming imperial court to Sakya monastery.
Frederick M. Mayer (d. 1974) was a major collector of Chinese porcelain-based in New York. His sale at Christie’s London in 1974 was one of the landmark Chinese art sales of the 20th century. In addition to the current bowl, it included a 14th-century hexagonal meiping and two Chenghua palace bowls.
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