Ming vase

The ‘Mona Lisa’ of the Princessehof

Not only people can have a fascinating history, Chinese vases have also had their fair share of adventures. This large example, decorated with a powerful dragon, was made in China’s imperial kilns some 600 years ago. Now it is on display in the Princessehof National Museum of Ceramics.

It is a typical Ming vase, made during the reign of the Ming emperor Yongle (1403-1424). Yongle’s reign is known for diplomatic missions to India, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. Led by the Islamic admiral Zheng He, these missions comprised fleets of hundreds of ships, which took with them the most beautiful and precious products made in China: silk and porcelain.

In 1935, the Leeuwarden collector Nanne Ottema discovered this vase in a small antique shop in Rotterdam. The antique dealer told Ottema that it had been found on Sangir, a small Indonesian island north of Sulawesi. But how did the vase end up there? And how did it make its way to Rotterdam? One explanation could be that Admiral Zheng He took this object with him as a diplomatic gift for a Muslim ruler on the Indonesian archipelago.

Ming vase with Chinese dragon, Yongle period (1403-1424), porcelain, h. 43 cm, Ø 33 cm, on loan from the Ottema-Kingma Foundation.
Ming vase with Chinese dragon, Yongle period (1403-1424), porcelain, h. 43 cm, Ø 33 cm, on loan from the Ottema-Kingma Foundation.

Ming vase with Chinese dragon, Yongle period (1403-1424), porcelain, h. 43 cm, Ø 33 cm, on loan from the Ottema-Kingma Foundation.
Click on the image for an enlargement.

It is a superb example of classical, early blue-and-white porcelain. A vibrant dragon surrounded by lotus branches is portrayed in dark cobalt blue. The dragon has three, clawed toes, likely indicating that this object was intended as a gift for foreign rulers or less senior members of the Chinese imperial family.

This dragon vase is the Princessehof’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Visitors come from all over the world, especially from China, to see it. Many are surprised to find such a wonderful piece of imperial porcelain in a small town in the northern Netherlands. Only four comparable vases have survived: one in the Palace Museum Beijing, one in the Palace Museum Taipei, one in a private collection in Japan, and one in Oslo, Norway. Oslo obtained its dragon vase through a Norwegian diplomat who stayed in Beijing in the early twentieth century. That vase, the ‘sister’ of the one in the Princessehof, is probably from the Imperial Palace.

Underglaze blue

The dragon vase is decorated in the famous underglaze-blue technique. After being shaped on a wheel, the vase was painted with cobalt blue pigment, and then immersed in a glaze bath and fired in a kiln at a high temperature of around 1300 degrees Celsius. During this process, the pigment, which initially looks black, transforms into a bright blue. In China the best pigment used for cobalt blue was imported from Central Asia and Persia. This was very expensive, which is why local cobalt was also used, but its colour was less intense in the early days of blue-and-white porcelain production. Later, the blue colour of the local pigment was greatly enhanced and refined through the addition of other minerals. The Jingdezhen ceramics centre in southeastern China became famous for the blue-and-white porcelain it produced. The imperial kilns where this dragon vase was probably made were also located there. To this day, millions of vases, cups and saucers are made in Jingdezhen every year for both the domestic and foreign markets, ensuring that blue-and-white endures as the most popular Chinese ceramic type.
Eva Ströber, former curator of Asian ceramics at the Princessehof National Museum of Ceramics, with thanks to Aafke Koole

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