A black-glazed stoneware phoenix-pattern pilgrim flask

隋或唐   黑釉瓷葡萄鳳紋扁壺

The flask is stoutly potted, of lenticular section, formed from two vertical panels joined at the sides, with a short-necked heavy-rimmed mouth and a high flared foot both of conforming section. Each side is moulded in high relief in Hellenistic style within a heart-shaped panel with a rather dragon-like phoenix dancing on a lotus with one leg raised and wings displayed, framed by scrolling grapevine, within a border of small circles. The shoulders are set with palmette-shaped handles. A treacly-black glaze covers the flask, pooling thickly in the recesses of the decoration and showing as a light brown on the highlights. The underside of the foot is largely unglazed, showing the hard grey paste burnt to a very pale brown colour in the firing.

An old Hong Kong family collection
Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 28th November 2019, lot 394

The flat-sided or ‘lentoid’ flask is an ancient form, found throughout the classical world from as early as the second millennium BC. The version that arrived in China, probably in the sixth century AD, remained strongly Hellenistic in feeling and in its mature expression in the seventh century, as here, must have seemed like the epitome of exotic westernness.

Flasks of this form can be seen slung from the packs of seventh century pottery figures of camels, but whether they are stoneware flasks that the potters represented is unclear. It is more likely the flasks actually carried by travellers on the Silk Road were of some thinner and lighter material, perhaps metal. On the other hand, we can be confident that sancai glazed pottery versions of the form were intended for burial. This leaves the stoneware versions in a puzzling place: neither obviously functional nor for burial. Perhaps their resemblance to “real” flasks was an artistic conceit, and their purpose was simply as vases for home or temple.

A number of related flasks are preserved in collections, varying in colour of glaze and size, but generally adhering closely to the form of the present piece. See for example, the flask in the British Museum with a thinner, lighter glaze that was formerly in the Eumorfopoulos collection, accession number 1936-1012.253. It is illustrated by Shelagh Vainker, Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, from Prehistory to the Present, pl. 45. The Nezu Museum has a smaller example, also with a thinner glaze, illustrated in Tang Pottery and Porcelain, no. 18, p. 23, and the MOA Museum of Art, Atami has a smaller, white-glazed example, illustrated in the same catalogue, no.13, p.13.

For a larger version with horizontal handles rather than vertical but with the same scene of a phoenix among vine scrolls, grapes and palmettes on each side, see Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection. Volume One. No. 209, p. 129.

Dimensions: Height: 23.2 cm, 9⅛ inches

Date: Sui dynasty (581-618) or early Tang dynasty (618-906)

Stock No. 2334

Price: On Request