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The David Vases

The David Vases, 1351 (Yuan dynasty), porcelain, cobalt and clear glaze, 63.6 x 20.7 cm each, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, China (British Museum)


Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Dr. Zucker: On May 13th in 1351 two vases and an incense burner were dedicated to a Daoist temple in China. Dr. Harris: By a man who had these made specifically for this purpose and had his name, date, and the purpose of this dedication inscribed right on the vases themselves. These were an offering to this temple in honor of a General who had recently been made a God. Dr. Zucker: I love that we have all of this specific information. In our history, we so often have to guess the year and here we have the exact day. Dr. Harris: This is something rather familiar to us. We still make dedications, we still make offerings. Dr. Zucker: We've lost the incense burner, but we do have the two vases and now we're looking at them in the British Museum in London. Dr. Harris: Right, they're known as the David Vases, after Sir Percival David the collector who purchased them, amassed this amazing collection of about 1500 Chinese ceramics and brought these two vases, which belong together, back together again. Dr. Harris: They're fairly tall and they are an archetype of what we think of Chinese ceramics in the west. This is blue and white porcelain. Dr. Harris: Porcelain is a very specific kind of ceramic that's very lustrous. Dr. Zucker: It's made from a very pure kind of clay. We get the word porcelain from the Venetian explorer, Marco Polo who went to China during this very period. Apparently when he saw porcelain and it's hard white surface, he thought it looked like the inside of a seashell. The word porcelain is very close to the Italian word for a cowry shell. Dr. Harris: The deed is 1351, China was part of the vast Mongol Empire that stretched from China in the east to what we think of today as Eastern Europe. Dr. Zucker: So often we use the word China to refer, not to the country, but to porcelain material. That's because China produced an enormous amount of porcelain for export. What's interesting is that the Chinese produced products for export with the local markets that they were selling to in mind. Dr. Harris: In fact, we think about this kind of blue and white China as quintessentially Chinese, but as it turns out history is always a lot more complicated because at this point China was actually part of the Mongol Empire, also known as the Yuan Dynasty. Porcelain is white, but the blue is from a mineral called Cobalt from what is present day Iran. Dr. Zucker: The cobalt is painted on the white porcelain, which is this very pure clay and then the entire thing is covered with a clear glaze which helps to give it this great sense of luminosity. Dr. Harris: Then it's fired at very high temperature so it becomes like glass, unlike typical ceramics or earthen ware. Dr. Zucker: The Chinese had kilns that were technologically far advanced of anything in the west or even in the near east. Dr. Harris: While we might think about this as very Chinese this is actually the result of a global Mongol Empire and the interaction of China and Iran. Dr. Zucker: In fact, some scholars think that the blue and white motif itself was not only based on the material from Iran, but was based on the taste of the local markets in Iran and that these pots were made for export. Dr. Harris: Although in this case, it was made for a temple in China. Dr. Zucker: Near the principal production center for porcelain. Dr. Harris: So while we might think about blue and white China as from the period of the Ming dynasty, later than this, these vases help us to date blue and white porcelain to the period before the Ming dynasty to the Yuan Dynasty. Dr. Zucker: Let's take a look at the vases themselves. They're about two and a half feet tall and they're covered with motif's that we think of as typical for Chinese ceramics. Most prominently on both vases, right at the shoulder is a great dragon, the serpentine form. Dr. Harris: Then around the base we see a vine and floral motif. We see that again just above the dragon motif and again at the very top. Dr. Zucker: The neck of the vase is divided into two parts. The bottom part includes a phoenix and then the top part leaves, but interspersed between the leaves is the inscription that helps us date this to the Yuan Dynasty and specifically to May 13th. The handles are elephants and although this is ceramic the design seems to come from bronze ware. In a bronze vessel you'd normally have a ring that hangs down from the handle. You can see that there was probably a ring here originally, it was attached to the elephants trunk, you can see the break marks. So, these are not in perfect condition, although, they are in awfully good condition. Dr. Harris: Considering that they date from 1351. (piano playing)