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Current time:0:00Total duration:6:22

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

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the freer gallery of art looking at this magnificent bowl made during the Ming Dynasty 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 so we're not talking about any red we're talking about a very particular dense almost raspberry red 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 it feels as if it's almost absorbing the light in the way that velvet does 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 some 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 Jing de Jong 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 read 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 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 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 glaze technology but porcelain technology clay usually has iron impurities things that color it but this is snow-white so to put this in context porcelain was something that was enormous ly 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 influence 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 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 rigorously regulated process we think for producing an object like this an absolute minimum would it be that it passed through 70 pairs of hands and that level of sophistication this lavishing of resources was important because these were dishes that were meant for ritual use 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 rain mark the name of the Emperor everything about this dish associates it with the Emperor so often when I'm looking at a work of art I'm looking for a narrative that's depict 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 it's important to remember that this would not have been an object that the public would have had access to 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 secretive objects that were only brought out for a ritual purpose even in Ming times this wouldn't have been shown as a connoisseurs 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 [Music]