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The exhibition Earth Transformed: Chinese Ceramics in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has a focused mission to introduce the museum’s newly acquired masterpieces as well as a selection of outstanding early donations. As with most exhibits and accompanying publications, not all objects from the collection were presented. Some pieces were omitted
because they were acquired after completion of the project, while others, such as those renowned ceramics bequeathed to the museum by Charles B. Hoyt in 1950, were excluded because of previous publication histories. Every curator has selections he or she is loath not to be able to include in his or her projects, so representative objects from these last two important categories are illustrated here.

Fig. 1: Plate, China, Northern Song or Jin dynasty, 12th century. Ding stoneware with impressed phoenix decoration. H. 2.1 cm, diam. of mouth: 23 cm, diam. of foot: 16 cm. Bequest of Mr. & Mrs. Myron Falk, Jr. 2001.639; courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The ivory-white glazed stoneware known as Ding ware was made by potters from ancient Dingzhou in northern China’s Hebei province. This elegant ware epitomized the achievement of the Chinese white ceramic tradition, which had begun in the late Neolithic period (ca. 8th to 3rd millennia B.C.) and included Xing ware and Qingbai ware. By the 10th century A.D., the interest in Ding ware was flourishing, but its ensuing prominence was owed to the 11th-century imperial patronage of the Northern Song court. Its off-white translucent glaze, variety of forms and shapes, elegant decorations, and, above all, the superb quality of the potting have all contributed to its highly regarded reputation among today’s connoisseurs.

Through skillful molding of this plate, a composition with an elegant phoenix flying against a floral background has been meticulously imprinted.1 This design is further enhanced by a delicate eight-scalloped outline that serves as its border. Peony scrolls are positioned in four opposing directions around the plate’s cavetto. Every motif involved in this impressed composition appears animated and crisply defined. The decorative effects have a strong resemblance to textile design of the time, while the precise and angular shaping of this shallow plate indicates its indebtedness to a prototype in metal.

Together with the mythological dragon, the phoenix motif became a favored decoration at court from the 11th to 13th centuries. These creatures were regarded as imperial symbols not only for the Chinese Song emperors and empresses (960–1278), but also for all the non-Chinese rulers. The phoenix symbolizes the virtues of the yin, or femininity, hence the symbol of the empress; just the opposite of the dragon motif, a symbol of the emperor.2 The peony blossoms represent beauty, nobility, and splendor, and so in blossoms represent beauty, nobility, and splendor, and so in concert with the phoenix, indicate that the plate was made for female members of the royal family.

Ding ware was produced for both utilitarian purposes and as artwork. Judging from the exquisite craftsmanship and refinement of the decorative arrangements evident on this plate, there are reasons to assume this superb product was originally created for appreciation or special occasions rather than for daily use.

Fig. 2: Large marbleized plate on three legs, Tang dynasty, early 8th century. Gongxian stoneware. H. 8.3 cm, diam. of mouth-rim: 32.6 cm. Bequest of Charles B. Hoyt, 1950. 50.1976; courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston was fortunate to receive a great amount of Asian ceramic works bequeathed by Mr. Charles B. Hoyt. Among the thousands of donated objects was a group of about forty Chinese marbleized stoneware vessels reported to be Mr. Hoyt’s favorite portion of the collection. Within this group, the present large plate on three legs stands out as the most impressive example.

To make marbleized ware such as this example, Chinese potters kneaded together slabs of clay in two or three different colors. After attaining a blended appearance, cross sections were cut and organized in order to produce desired patterns that were then molded into different objects. Marbleized ware is usually limited to small sizes due to the difficulty of molding. The exceptional size of this plate makes it without a peer in its grandeur and beauty.

The myth of how the Chinese invented marbleized ceramics has long puzzled historians. Traditionally, Chinese scholars believed such techniques were borrowed from ancient Chinese polychrome lacquer works. However, evidence has neversupported this theory. On the other hand, I believe strongly that the exoticism of Near East marbleized glassware, imported through the Silk Route, was the source of inspiration for the Chinese potters of the early 8th century. The Chinese then ingeniously applied the techniques of the marbleized glassware to the making of the world’s earliest marbleized ceramics.

Visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston may view the ongoing exhibition Earth Transformed, for which there is an accompanying catalogue, through 2002. A complementary installation in an adjoining gallery, The Colors of the Earth: Kangxi Era Porcelain from the Stamen Collection, is also on view through the end of the year. For information, call 617.267.9300 or visit www.mfa.org.

Wu Tung is the Matsutaro Shoriki Curator of Asian Art, and head of the Department of Art of Asia, Oceania & Africa at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Beyond the Exhibit is a feature that showcases some of the many important objects not included in museum exhibitions and accompanying catalogues.

1 For this technique, a decorated mold was pressed against the interior and exterior of the plate when it was still in a semimalleable, leather-hard state.

2 A fine Ding ware example with a carved dragon motif is illustrated in Earth Transformed, 74.

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