This vase offers an interesting and rare example of Yuan ceramics. There are only two other known examples, one of which is in the Beijing Imperial Palace. Its refined form, curving out at the shoulder from a narrow base, and its fully coated surface are features associated with traditional Song (960-1279) models. The delicately engraved dragon encircling the belly has been painted with a slip of clay and water. Its forcefully-drawn contours, slender muzzle, long, sinuous neck ending in a small head, its dorsal crest and its triple-clawed paws are typical of the Yuan period, as is the use of an intense, shimmering cobalt blue. This vase may well have been destined for official use.
The high kaolin content of the porcelain enabled it to be fired at 1350o C to obtain an incredibly hard ceramic body of a pure white. Along with copper red and iron, cobalt is one of the only pigments that can withstand such high temperatures and it thus became established as the colour par excellence for this type of ware. The white porcelain from Jingdezhen featured a smooth coating. The exceptional resources of Jingdezhen, which was both rich in kaolin and close to southern ports, were to be decisive factors in its future expansion.
The Yuan period marked the development of porcelain exports to South East Asia, Japan and the Near East. The Mongols brought economic impetus to the sector, introducing such measures as concentrated production and rational organization of labor previously unknown in the 14th century. The combination of cobalt blue and porcelain gave birth to a celebrated technique that led to a boom in Chinese ceramics, ultimately turning them into a national symbol.
This head of a bodhisattva, or "compassionate being", bears the stamp of great nobility. It has a broad forehead, regular features, slender nose, determined chin, and the loose hair is knotted at the base of the skull. The workmanship is expressive and deliberately realistic. The facial features and the intensely refined treatment of the delicately defined mouth and wide- open eyes convey a dreamy expression reminiscent of the Hellenistic period. Such Greek influences, believed to stem from the conquests of Alexander the Great, are typical of the Gandhara school in its Afghan variant and are the defining features of the local statuary which flourished at the Hadda site where this piece was excavated.
The face was modelled in untreated clay which was dried and then painted, as revealed by the polychrome traces; compared with schist or stucco, the technique involved allowed for enhanced expressivity and realism.
The head comes from the Tapa-i-kafariha monastery where the various chapels were decorated with series of large Buddhist sculptures. The figures in these sculpted scenes must have occupied the upper areas where episodes from the life of Buddha were depicted, gradually unfolding before the eyes of the faithful as they passed.
The face attests to a relinquishment of Indian influences in favour of a renewed Greek tradition. This style, associated with Gandhara art under the reign of the Kushans, was to reach its pinnacle in the 2nd-3rd century CE, and would influence the cultures that lay along the Silk Road as far as China.