The well-potted jar is almost spherical in shape with its expansive body rounding to the small- constricted neck with double-ring mouth above and to the countersunk base below. The presence of the potter is apparent in the finger-grooved sides and the shoulder enhanced by a pair of grooved lines incised while the bottle was on a slow-turning wheel. The dark glaze, resulting from the application of two coats, is a complex color appearing black to greenish-black with lighter shadows and specks of brown throughout, not atypical of a glaze highly charged with iron. The lustrous surface provides a luminous sky for two rust-colored birds occupying opposite sides of the vessel. Painted rapidly with a brush loaded with iron-rich slip, the long-tailed, heavy-winged creatures materialize with a minimum of brushwork. Each broad, gently curved stroke ranges from a dense rust color to a much thinner one, the transparency allowing the dark glaze beneath to show through lending depth and three-dimensionality to the images. The light grey stoneware has burned a pale buff on the exposed foot, which surrounds the fully glazed base.
Dark-glazed wares such as that represented here, known variously as ‘Northern Black Wares,’ ‘Northern Dark-glazed Wares,’ ‘Northern Temmoku,’ and ‘Henan Temmoku,’ were actually produced widely, not only in Henan but also Hebei, Shandong, Shaanxi, and Shanxi provinces. Black-glazed wares both with and without rust-colored painting were surprisingly produced at kilns in Dingzhou, Hebei province, which specialized in the renowned white ware, and at Yaozhou in Shaanxi province, known predominantly for their exquisite Northern Celadons. Although produced alongside slip-painted Cizhou wares, in which the black or brown designs are visually sharp and clear even when abbreviated, the present northern black wares have very little in common with them. Their subdued, seductive, and sometimes almost abstract renderings stand, in fact, aesthetically, quite apart.
The images here bring to mind ink-monochrome paintings by Chan (Zen) masters, whose works reflect the belief and trust in a spontaneous, instantaneous path to enlightenment. The northern potters and decorators achieved the same effects in their ceramics as their Buddhist contemporaries did in painting, likely without intending to. One wonders, then, not if their ceramic wares were highly regarded, but how they were regarded, beyond their utility as perfect containers for a delectable beverage.
Rust-painted designs on dark-glazes range from simple dots or stripes to lotus sprays to the most frequently encountered design, that of birds, or phoenix, as in the present vessel. The forms that were most usually and frequently decorated in this way were pear-shaped bottles (or yuhuchun), jars, and bottles related to the present but taller in proportion than this attractive sphere, which is, in fact, a great rarity.