This object in the shape of a seated elephant with cobalt blue and white designs is clearly modeled on a kendi, a type of Chinese drinking vessel. Unlike the Chinese originals, this Safavid example is made of stonepaste rather than porcelain and the elephant’s features are not as naturalistic.
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Date:second quarter 17th century
Geography:Made in Iran, probably Kirman
Medium:Stonepaste; painted in shades of blue under transparent glaze
Dimensions:H. 9 1/8 in. (23.2 cm) W. 7 1/8 in. (18.1 cm) Diam. 4 5/8 in. (11.7 cm)
Credit Line:The Friends of the Department of Islamic Art Fund, 1968
Elephant-Shaped Water Jar (Kendi)
This vessel from Safavid Iran in the shape of a seated elephant with cobalt blue, bluish gray, and white designs has been clearly modeled on a kendi, a Ming Chinese drinking vessel of the Wanli period (1573–1620). Kendis were exported from China to Europe, Iran, and the Ottoman Empire, where they were often copied and adapted to suit local taste. While it is not clear how Iranians used such vessels, they could have been used as bases for water pipes, or qalians, or merely as decorative objects in the prestigious Chinese style.
The original Chinese kendis belong to a category of porcelain known as kraak, after a type of large Dutch trading ship that transported such wares. Iran was one of the first places to produce kraak imitations. The present example differs from the Chinese prototype in both material and execution: it is made of stonepaste rather than porcelain, and the elephant’s features are rendered in low relief and less naturalistically. The coiled trunk found on Chinese kendis is also absent here. However, in both the Iranian and Chinese examples, the body is surmounted by a tall, cylindrical neck, by which the vessel was held, while the elephant’s short trunk functioned as a spout.
Closely following the Chinese original, the decoration here is executed in cobalt blue, with grayish blue outlines, on a white ground under a clear glaze. A fringed saddlecloth with an elaborate key-fret design and trappings with long ribbons and tassels cover the animal’s body and neck. The tubular neck is painted with floral sprays, birds, and butterflies. Lisa Golombek has applied the term transitional style to this type of blue-and-white ware, on which a blue design is outlined in bluish gray or black, and has assigned it to Kirman in the second quarter of the seventeenth century.
Few Safavid animal-shaped kendis have come to light. A similar example of an elephant-shaped kendi from Safavid Iran is in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Maryam Ekhtiar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. The kendi was based on a Buddhist drinking vessel known as a kundi, which was introduced into China by Indian Buddhist monks who used it for ablutions during religious ceremonies. The Metropolitan Museum’s collection contains a similar elephant-shaped porcelain kendi dating to the late sixteenth century (acc. no. 2003.232).
2. The Topkapı Treasury in Istanbul has several late sixteenth-century examples. In 1609 Shah ‘Abbas I endowed a number to the Shrine of Shaikh Safi al-Din in Ardabil (now in the Islamic Collection at the National Museum of Iran in Tehran).
3. Kraak Porcelain: The Rise of Global Trade in the Late Sixteenth Century and Early Seventeenth Centuries. Exhibition, Jorge Welsh, London; Jorge Welsh, Lisbon. Catalogue by Luisa Vinhais and Jorge Welsh. London, 2008, p. 321. Also see Allan 1991, pp. 54–55.
4. Vinhais and Welsh 2008 (see footnote 3), p. 321.
5. Golombek, Lisa. "The Safavid Ceramic Industry at Kirman." Iran 41 (2003), pp. 253–70. See also Golombek, Lisa, Robert B. Mason, and Patty Proctor. "Safavid Potters’ Marks and the Question of Provenance." Iran 39 (2001), pp. 207–36. Golombek’s attribution is based on archaeological evidence and petrographic analysis of shards unearthed at Kirman and Mashhad as well as on extant signed examples with potter’s marks in various museums and private collections. Since our kendi does not have a potter’s mark, the attribution is solely based on stylistic and historical evidence.
6. Allan 1991, p. 54, fig. 32.
Mrs. Silvana Aliati Elliot, Milan (until 1968; sold to MMA)
Bloomington. Indiana University. "Islamic Art Across the World," June 18, 1970–October 1, 1970, no. 208.
New York. Asia Society. "Shah Abbas and the Arts of Isfahan," October 11, 1973–December 2, 1973, no. 82.
Boston. Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums. "Shah Abbas and the Arts of Isfahan," January 19, 1974–February 19, 1974, no. 82.
Chicago. Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago. "Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and Its Impact on the Western World," October 3, 1985–December 1, 1985, no. 84.
Bowie, Theodore Robert. "An Exhibition Prepared by Theodore Bowie." In Islamic Art Across the World. Vol. no. 1970/3. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Art Museum, June 17 to Oct. 1, 1970. no. 208.
Ettinghausen, Richard. "Reports of the Departments: Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 28, no. 2 (1969). pp. 79–81, ill. p. 80 (b/w).
Welch, Anthony, ed. Shah 'Abbas and the Arts of Isfahan. Cambridge and New York: Asia House Gallery, 1973. no. 82, pp. 115, 119, ill. p. 115 (b/w).
Carswell, John. "Catalogue of an exhibition at David and Alfred Smart Gallery, University of Chicago." In Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and Its Impact on the Western World. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985. no. 84, pp. 144–45, ill. p. 144 (b/w).
Allan, James. Islamic Ceramics. Ashmolean–Christie's Handbooks. Oxford, 1991. pp. 54–55, ill. fig. 32.
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Priscilla P. Soucek, Sheila R. Canby, and Navina Haidar, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 156, pp. 230–31, ill. p. 230 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Claire Moore, ed. "A Resource for Educators." In Art of the Islamic World. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 216–17, ill. pl. 44 (color).
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