Jiajing Reign: A Fine Polychrome Enamelled “Paired Writhing Dragons” Dish

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DESCRIPTION.

finely potted with shallow rounded sides supported by a tapering foot ring rising to an everted rim, delicately painted on wholly surface in penciled iron-red outline filled with rich green, muddy yellow and iron-red enamels, the central medallion enclosing meticulously a pair of confronting five-clawed dragon with raised snouts and open jaws in furious face writhing in pursuit of a ‘flaming pearl’ amidst dense ruyi clouds and flames within a double line border above a band of undulating eight stylized lotus blooms scroll around the cavetto with a band of tumultuous green cresting waves on the rim, the exterior with two spiritedly five-clawed striding dragons in mutual chasing the flaming pearls amidst scattered clouds wisps, written with vertically underglaze blue six characters of Jiajing reign (大明嘉靖年製) mark within a double circle at the base.

RESEARCH & ESSAY.

The current dish represents the brilliant polychrome technique that was produced in the Jiajing reign (1522-1566 AD) of the late Ming dynasty. The polychrome technique is described that enamel decoration on the surface of a glaze has already been fired. Once painted, the piece would be fired a second time, usually at a lower temperature to create a stunning design like the present dish. Although the enameled porcelains technique most assuredly was produced in the fifteenth century, but it was widely cherished by the succeeding’s periods. In the sixteenth century, the enameled ware tradition showcases Chinese potters at the height of their ingenuity, technical know-how and aesthetic vision, and later it was prized by the Qing court of Kangxi reign resuming it to be famille verte wares. Produced in the Jiajing reign of Ming dynasty, the present dish is executed in polychrome technique, which all its designs around the surface and exterior are outlined in a penciled dull iron-red and then filled with colorful designs in primarily rich green, iron-red and some yellow enamels detail showing a strong contrast and sophistication in both its design execution and balance of arrangement. Chen Kelun in Chinese Porcelain: Art, Elegance, and Appreciation, Long River Press, San Francisco, USA, 2004, p. 80, notes that the production of polychrome porcelain in the Ming Dynasty reached its peak during the Jiajing and Wanli periods and became the distinctive and principal type of ceramic wares. The polychrome vessels of Jiajing and Wanli periods are covered wholly with colorful designs in rich colors, with red being the most prominent and the red and the green forming a strong contrast. In addition, Daisy Lion-Goldschmidt notes in Ming Porcelain, New York, 1978, p. 164, in her discussion of the ‘Red-and-Green’ Group, the overglaze palette of the Jiajing period (1521-1567) would come to dominate polychrome porcelains, eventually leading to the appearance of famille verte during the second half of the seventeenth century in the Kangxi reign. Wares of this type were usually decorated primarily in iron-red and green, with some yellow.

The enameled ‘paired writhing dragon’ design on the present dish appears to be unique and masterful execution painted in rich green, iron-red and yellow enamels coloration embodying the peak of Jingdezhen artistry in the middle to late Ming dynasties. Confronting dragons in furious face writhing in pursuit of a flaming pearl and cresting wave designs is a classic design that was initially depicted on early Ming blue-and-white prototype. For example, blue-and-white bowl with a domed cover decorated with the two-writhing dragon design dated to early Ming of Xuande reign (1426-1435 AD) from Sir Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, published and illustrated in Chinese Ceramics: Highlights of the Sir Percival David Collection, Krahl, Regina and Jessica Harrison-Hall, London, BMP, 2009, pp 64-65, no.30 (see fig. 1a & 1b). In addition, a band of undulating eight stylized lotus blooms scroll around the cavetto with a band of tumultuous cresting waves design on the rim are also distinctly adopted from early Ming style design on blue-and-white porcelains.

Five color or overglaze predominantly in green and iron-red, and some yellow enamels design techniques like on the present Ming dish, was particularly more appreciated by imperial and foreign patrons, partly for the presence of bright color enamels. There are some examples of polychrome technique in different form painted predominantly in iron-red and green enamels of dragon design in various styles, now are in the renowned museums. For example, a four-sided jar with cover painted in green and iron-red enamels with dragons, dated Ming-Jiajing period, from National Palace Museum, Taiwan, is illustrated in Ming Official Wares, A Survey of Chinese Ceramics, Liu Liang-yu, Taiwan, 1991, p. 195 (see fig. 2). Another from the British Museum, is illustrated in Ming Ceramics in The British Museum Press, London, pp. 260, cat. 9:105 together with a copy from the Republican era, no. 9: 104. Another is from Palace Museum, illustrated in Xia Nai and Feng Xianming, Encyclopedia of Chinese Art, Decorative Arts, vol. 3b, Ceramics, Shanghai, 1991, cat. No. 114. The overglazed technique also appears on a rounded jar from Cleveland Museum of Art, is illustrated in 1990 Cleveland Museum of Art, The Severance and Greta Milikin Collection, July 5 – September 2, 1990, no. 37 (see fig. 3).

Two writhing dragons design finely detailed contouring dragons’ bodies in pursuit of a flaming pearl around the ‘ruyi’ clouds on the current polychrome dish is also rated to an extremely rare group of polychrome dishes marked and dated to the Jiajing reign of Ming period. The present dish was probably produced in the late Jiajing reign, and the design of two writhing dragons like on the present dish were still placed on wucai style in the brief six-year reign period, the Longqing reign (1567 – 1572 AD), and they actually indicate a further in increase in official demands in the sixteenth century. For example, a similar ‘writhing dragons’ style but in wucai palette marked and dated to Longqing reign (1567 – 1572 AD) from Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, is published and illustrated in Ceramic Evolution in the Middle Ming Period: Hongzhi to Wanli (1488 – 1620), Rosemary Scott and Rose Kerr, Exhibition Catalogue, Singapore, 1994, cat. no. 20; another from Chang Foundation, Taipei, is published and illustrated in Imperial Overglaze Enameled Wares in the Late Ming Dynasty, Degawa, Osaka, 1995, cat. no. 16; another from the British Museum, illustrated by J. Rawson, Chinese Ornament, The Lotus and Dragon, London, 1990, pl. 5 (see fig. 4). Another (33.1 cm in size), mark and period of Longqing (1567 – 1572 AD), was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 28th October 2002, lot. 2123, for HKD 179,250, initially estimated between HKD 120,000 – HKD 180.000 (see fig. 5).

With polychrome technique with a delicate crowded decoration around the interior surface, the present dish is exceptional polychrome piece of Jiajing reign of Ming dynasty. No other polychrome ‘writhing dragons’ dish marked and dated to Jiajing reign appears exactly similar to the present dish to be recorded, but a Ming of Jiajing dish with similar ‘dragons’ design painted in underglaze blue appears on the market. For example, a large blue-and-white dish depicted with two confronting dragons marked with Jiajing reign and period was sold at Sotheby’s London, 10th May 2017, lot. 119 (79 cm in width), for GBP 75,000, initially estimated between GBP 60,000 – GBP 80,000 (see fig. 6). The polychrome ‘writhing dragons’ of Jiajing reign appears with various styles on different vessel forms. Compare with a small polychrome cup depicted with iron-red writhing dragons on green wave designs, mark and period of Jiajing period (8.7 cm in size), sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 8th October 2014, lot. 3701, for HKD 625,000 or equivalent to US$ 80,581, initially estimated between HKD 500,000 – HKD 700,000 (see fig. 7). Also, compare with an iron-red and green enameled ‘dragon’ jar, mark and period of Jiajing (13 cm in size), sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 8th April 2013, lot. 32, for HKD 2,200,000 or equivalent to US$ 283,404, initially estimated between HKD 900,000 – HKD 1,200,000 (see fig. 8). The polychrome Jiajing wares painted in a single iron-red enamel are also seen. Compare with a smaller iron-red painted ‘dragon’ dish on the exterior but the interior left plain, mark and period of Jiajing (19.3 cm), sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 6th April 2016, lot. 36, for HK$ 535,000, initially estimated between HK$ 100,000 – HK$ 150,000 (see fig. 9). Compare with similar style of smaller two writhing dragons to a yellow-ground green-enameled dragon design dish (13.4 cm in diameter), with aubergine Jiajing mark and period, sold at Sotheby’s London, 15th May 2013, lot. 118, for GBP 18,750, initially estimated between GBP 15,000 – GBP 20,000 (see fig. 10a & 10b). The type of the Jiajing polychrome wares like the present style is also sometimes depicted with ‘ku’ dragon. Compare with a jar painted in iron-red and green enamels with two scaly ‘kui’ dragons striding amidst lotus scrolls, sold at Christie’s London, 10th November 2015, lot. 10377, for GBP 10,000, initially estimated between GBP 8,000 – GBP 12,000 (see fig. 11).

Compared to the counterparts of blue-and-white and wucai style wares in the late Ming eras, the exquisite enameled design on the current dish is extremely intriguing and provides valuable insight into royal celebrations for the Jiajing emperor’s grandeur in the late Ming dynasty. Finely painted with iron-red outlining of the dragons and its surroundings repeating in different posture on the underside, the design of the present dish creates a magnificent sharpness of decoration, and the piece was partly to present as a gift or in exchange for foreign royal consumption or commercial relations. The five-clawed dragons design in regal posture on the current dish also reveals the Chinese imperial iconography with aesthetic taste. A pair of five-clawed dragons writhing and confronting around a flaming pearl pattern painted in enamels with complex and intriguing ornaments on the current dish, the design seems so beautifully fashioned that actually seem to be alive and an insignia that is ready to fight in protecting the Emperor and gaining the perfection and prosperity against all evil spirits and marauders in the sacred precincts. The two five-clawed dragons design on the current dish is also associated with a symbol in Chinese mythology that represents imperial dignity and authority, which this design was used by Emperor or the Son of Heaven only. Meanwhile, a pearl is also considered as a symbol of prosperity, immortality, good luck, truth and wisdom for the emperor, which the use of a pair of dragons chasing a flaming pearl design on the present dish likely was therefore limited to imperial family and court officials.

Citation:

  1. Chinese Porcelain: Art, Elegance, and Appreciation, Chen Kelun, Long River Press, San Francisco, USA, 2004, p. 80.

  2. Ming Porcelain, Daisy Lion-Goldschmidt, Rizzoli, New York, 1978, p. 164.

  3. Chinese Ceramics: Highlights of the Sir Percival David Collection, Krahl, Regina and Jessica Harrison-Hall, London, BMP, 2009, pp 64-65, no.30.

  4. Ming Official Wares, A Survey of Chinese Ceramics, Liu Liang-yu, Taiwan, 1991, p. 195.

  5. 1990 Cleveland Museum of Art, The Severance and Greta Milikin Collection, July 5 – September 2, 1990, no. 37.

  6. in Ceramic Evolution in the Middle Ming Period: Hongzhi to Wanli (1488 – 1620), Rosemary Scott and Rose Kerr, Exhibition Catalogue, Singapore, 1994, cat. no. 20.

  7. Imperial Overglaze Enameled Wares in the Late Ming Dynasty, Degawa, Osaka, 1995, cat. no. 16.

  8. Chinese Ornament, The Lotus and Dragon, Jessica Rawson, London, 1990, pl. 5.

CATALOGUE ENTRY.

Jiajing Reign