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Red so rare it was lost to time —a ritual Ming dish

A conversation with Jan Stuart, Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Steven Zucker in front of Dish with copper-red glaze, Ming dynasty, porcelain with copper-red glaze, on the base, a six-character cobalt-oxide (blue reign mark in a double circle under colorless glaze, c. 1426-35, 4.6 x 22 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment and Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, F2015.2a-b). Visit the Freer Gallery.

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user espeneli
    why did those specific colors of the bowls represent certain things like the earth, or the moon? why did the yellow bowl represent earth?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops seedling style avatar for user Chester Bare
      Not sure:
      "Since ancient imperial dynasties, yellow has been regarded as the royal color. Yellow dragons were a symbol of the emperor."
      Probably bc they thought their empire was the world and it should be shown in yellow for prosperity and respect for the emperor who is almost always shown in that color.

      I think the moon color makes sense tho
      (2 votes)

Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Freer Gallery of Art, looking at this magnificent bowl made during the Ming dynasty. - [Jan] This dish is extremely rare because the color red that you see here was so difficult to make that there are only a small number of ceramics with this color glaze. - [Steven] So we're not talking about any red. We're talking about a very particular dense, almost raspberry, red. - [Jan] It has this texture to it. You're convinced, looking at it, that if you touch it, you'll be touching velvet. But no, it's smooth. - [Steven] It feels as if it's almost absorbing the light in the way that velvet does. - [Jan] There's been a lot of scientific research trying to understand how in the 15th century did they create this glaze. The bubbles are very important here. So much of the bubbles burst, and when you get very close to the surface, there's a little bit of a sense of an orange peel effect. That's very typical in ceramic work of this time period, from what's called the Porcelain City of the World, Jingdezhen in South China, where this was made. So these bubbles that burst, they create some part of the surface, but the unbroken bubbles underneath are interacting with copper that's creating red. Now copper is one of the hardest things to control in the kiln. You are actually firing in what we call a reduction atmosphere. You are having as little oxygen as possible in the kiln during the firing. - [Steven] And we see some traces of that process in the kiln. If you look at the edge of the dish, you can see where the white of the porcelain is exposed where the red has perhaps migrated ever so slightly down. - [Jan] On the rim, the small amount of copper completely vaporizes, disappears, and it leaves what then becomes a clear glaze over the white porcelain body. So this is also a chance to admire, not only glazed technology, but porcelain technology. Clay usually has iron impurities, things that color it. But this is snow white. - [Steven] So just to put this in context, porcelain was something that was enormously prized, both in China but also in much of the rest of the world. It was prized in the Middle East and it was prized in Europe. The Medici in Florence began to try to replicate Chinese porcelain because it was so precious and it was so beautiful. But it's not just the porcelain that makes this rare. There's this double layer. Because while the Europeans couldn't even produce the porcelain, here we have people producing a glaze that is even more difficult. - [Jan] Absolutely. This kind of dish, this quality, this color, it's very demanding to produce. And so it was produced at kilns run by officials from the court. It was a very vigorously regulated process. We think, for producing an object like this, an absolute minimum would be that it passed through 70 pairs of hands. - [Steven] And that level of sophistication, this lavishing of resources, was important because these were dishes that were meant for ritual use. - [Jan] This particular color is strongly associated in the 15th century with use for rituals dedicated to the sun. There were altars that the court worshiped dedicated to heaven, earth, sun and moon. So we have a deep blue for heaven, a yellow for earth, a bluish white for the moon, and this gorgeous red for the sun. And in the early Ming dynasty, ritual dishes of all kinds would have been bronze. There was a thought that you could be ritually-effective but also cost-efficient, if you switched to using porcelain for your ritual vessels. So this kind of dish might have held fruit or some kind of food offering. And on the bottom of the dish, we see in cobalt, which fires to a beautiful blue, a very beautiful reign mark, the name of the emperor. Everything about this dish associates it with the emperor. - [Steven] So often when I'm looking at a work of art, I'm looking for a narrative that's depicted. - [Jan] This is abstract. And for us as modern viewers, I think it elicits emotion. The depth of color makes me think of Mark Rothko. He was after big emotions. Ecstasy, tragedy. At the time this was made, no one had that kind of language. People are making it to please the emperor, and to have it used effectively in rituals that will bring the right kind of harmony to their world. But when they look at it, those emotions, I think, are still there. Color does make our brains and hearts come into action. - [Steven] It's important to remember that this would not have been an object that the public would have had access to. - [Jan] One of the things that I love about museums is that we are part of a modern concept of bringing what would have been hidden away objects, rare, completely secreted objects, that were only brought out for a ritual purpose, even in Ming times, this wouldn't have been showing as a connoisseur's delight. But when it was no longer ritually used, it was still stored in the palace. Then early in the 20th century, it came out of the palace when there was a great movement of objects. So then it first went into private collectors' hands. And we as a national museum, have had the opportunity to purchase this and bring it into our care with the express purpose of sharing with the public. (jazzy piano music)