A Symbol of the Yongle Court
Moonflasks of this daring, massive form are testimony to the grand design concepts realized by the Ming imperial kilns during the Yongle reign, and the mighty dragons with their bold upturned snouts, bushy manes, writhing, scaly bodies, spiky spines and outsized claws reflect the pioneering spirit that reigned not only at the porcelain manufactories, but characterizes the period as a whole.
These impressive flasks seem to have been equally popular with the Chinese court as with royal houses abroad, examples being preserved from the Qing imperial collection in Beijing and Taipei, as well as the Safavid royal collection in Tehran and the Ottoman royal collection in Istanbul. Although Chinese ceramics had been exported on a grand scale from the 9th century onwards and sherds of virtually any period are found at archaeological sites throughout Asia, Yongle imperial porcelain does not seem to have arrived with ordinary trade and is therefore not excavated, but has only been handed down from court collections. Not only the production of Jingdezhen porcelain appears to have been strictly controlled and jealously guarded by the court in the Yongle period, but equally its distribution.
Flasks of such ample dimensions, which have considerable weight already when empty, may have been specifically designed as weighty diplomatic gifts rather than practical household implements. When in the Yongle period the eunuch Cheng He embarked on his extensive sea voyages that brought him and his immense fleet as far as Africa, he carried on board Chinese luxury goods deemed appropriate to represent the grandeur of the Chinese empire abroad and to impress foreign potentates. What object could better have symbolised to other Asian courts the power and competence of the Yongle empire than a flask such as this?
The shape, of bulging oval section achieves almost a trompe-l'oeil effect of rendering the dragons three-dimensional. It is a unique notion that was not repeated in later periods, as it must have been extremely difficult to accomplish an undistorted vessel of this form. Six companion pieces of the same form and design are recorded, all today in museum collections: two in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, one in the Nanjing Museum, one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from the collection of Mrs. Alfred Clark, and one in the Hong Kong Museum of Art from the collection of K.S. Lo.
The examples in Taipei are illustrated in Minji meihin zuroku. Kōbuyō, Eirakuyō, Sentokuyō [Illustrated catalogue of important Ming porcelains. Hongwu, Yongle and Xuande wares], Tokyo, 1977, pl. 33 (fig. 0); and in Mingdai chunian ciqi tezhan mulu/Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Early Ming Period Porcelain, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1982, cat. no. 2, where a flower-decorated example is also published, cat. no. 3. The moonflask in Beijing is 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, pl. 89 (fig. 1), together with three other flasks of this form, with dragons among lotus, dragons reserved in white among blue waves, and with flowers, pls 90, 91 and 86, all from the Qing court collection; for the Nanjing piece see Xu Huping, The Treasures of the Nanjing Museum, Hong Kong, 2001, pl. 43; for the example in London, see John Ayers, Far Eastern Ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1980, col. pl. 47, and illustrated also on the dust jacket. The flask in Hong Kong, sold in our London rooms 15th April 1980, lot 234, is published in Emerald-like Blue Hue Rises. Chinese Ceramics Donated by the K. S. Lo Foundation, Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, Hong Kong, 1995, cat.no. 20.
A related moonflask with very similar dragons among scrolling lotus is in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, see Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, ed. John Ayers, London, 1986, vol. 2, no. 614 (fig. 2); and a flower-decorated flask of this form (the neck missing), and three vases with globular body painted with similar dragons were preserved in the Ardabil Shrine, see John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington, D.C., 1956, pl. 55 centre and pl. 53 bottom.
Although Geng Baochang attributes all moonflasks of this form to the Xuande period and a few examples exist with Xuande reign marks, a Yongle dating of the unmarked flasks seems confirmed by the fact that examples were recovered from the Yongle but apparently not the Xuande stratum of the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, see Jingdezhen Zhushan chutu Yongle guanyao ciqi [Yongle Imperial porcelain excavated at Zhushan, Jingdezhen], Capital Museum, Beijing, 2007, pls 105 and 106.
Evolution to Perfection.Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection/Evolution vers la perfection. Céramiques de Chine de la Collection Meiyintang, Sporting d'Hiver, Monte Carlo, 1996, cat. no. 110 (illustrated).
44.2 cm., 17 3/8 in.
Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1642.
Christie's London, 5th June 1995, lot 116.
Eskenazi Ltd., London.