Friday, December 17, 2010

A note on the Fonthill Vase

The Fonthill Vase
National Museum of Ireland, Dublin 

The so-called Gaigneres-Fonthill vase at the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin is regarded as the oldest well-documented Chinese porcelain object to enter Europe. It is a porcelain vase with bluish-white (qingbai) glaze, dating from the beginning of the 14th century. The history of the vase is given as follows in almost all available English-language sources: The vase arrived in Europe probably as a gift to King Louis the Great of Hungary, given by an embassy of Nestorian Christians from China, who visited Pope Benedict XII in 1338. The piece then supposedly was mounted by King Louis, and given as a gift to Charles III of Durazzo, upon his ascension to the throne of Naples in 1381 (after the defeat of Louis' hated enemy, Queen Joan). That would explain the combination of Hungarian and Neapolitan Angevin coat of arms mounted on top of the vase. This theory, first elaborated by Mazerolle in 1897 (Gazette des Beaux-Arts), is based on a drawing by Gaigneres from 1713, which depicts the elaborate medieval silver-gilt mounting and enameled heraldic decoration of the vase (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale). Mazerolle did not know that the vessel, without its mount, was purchased by the National Museum of Ireland in 1882 for about £28.

The vase had been previously recorded at the Fonthill Abbey collection of William Beckford, which was sold in 1822-23, and the piece likely entered the Hamilton collection after that (The 'Hamilton palace sale' took place in 1882). The celebrated Chinese vase still had its mount preserved at Fonthill Abbey, as the following illustration proves (the picture comes from the book: An Illustrated History and Description of Fonthill Abbey, by John Rutter, 1823 - available via Google Books.)

The mount was removed at an unknown date during the 19th century, and the object entered the National Museum of Ireland unrecognized. The vase was identified by Arthur Lane, who then pieced together the entire story ("The Gaignieres-Fonthill Vase - A Chinese Porcelain of about 1300," Burlington Magazine 103 (1961), 124-132). Lane's article is still the general reference on the object, cited by many (for example: David Whitehouse: "Chinese Porcelain in Medieval Europe," in Medieval Archaeology, 1972, see online here.). This information is also given by the National Museum of Ireland website and the piece was featured with this data in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Gaigneres drawing of the vase
with its medieval mounting  
Paris, BNF 
The study of Arthur Lane, Keeper of the Department of Ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum, also appeared in Hungarian in the art history journal Művészettörténeti Értesítő - sadly only after the premature death of Lane. Béla Krisztinkovich, a Hungarian expert on ceramics, published a response to Lane's article in the same Hungarian journal. It appears that his publication remained unnoticed outside Hungary (Krisztinkovich, Béla, "Hozzászólás Arthur Lane a Művészettörténeti Értesítő 1967/I. számában megjelent posztumusz cikkéhez a Gaignières-Fonthill vázáról," Művészettörténeti Értesítő 18, 1969/2, 187–192.). Krisztinkovich provides a close analysis of the Gaigneres drawing, which preserved the feature of the mount of the object, and its heraldic decoration. The heraldic decoration is that of the Neapolitan Angevin family, along with the coat of arm of the Hungarian Angevin kings. This of course gave rise to the theory outlined above. However, all branches of the Neapolitan Angevins had a claim to the throne of Hungary, and thus they used the Hungarian coat of arms in their heraldic representation as well. After analyzing the heraldic decoration and other features of the object in details, Krisztinkovich arrives at the conclusion that the vase was mounted for Queen Joan II, successor of King Ladislas at the throne of Naples (1414-1434). His father, Charles III of Naples was king of Hungary for a brief time (Charles II in Hungary) - but was murdered swiftly, making way ultimately for Sigismund of Luxemburg. Joan's brother, Ladislas, also claimed Hungary, but failed to obtain the crown. Similarly to her brother's claim, Joan used the title of Queen of Hungary until her death in 1435. The argument of Krisztinkovich is clinched by the inscription on the spout of the jug: JEHANA, clearly referring to Joan. Later, Jenő Horváth further elaborated this argument - his study is recommended as the best English-language overview of the Fonthill vase (reference below).

Based on these observations, it is quite certain that the Chinese porcelain vase known as the Fonthill vase was not mounted by Louis the Great, and certainly was not given to him by ambassadors from China in 1338 (this was purely conjectural, anyway, and did not take into consideration the Louis didn't even ascend the throne until 1342). It seems that we do not know when and how the vase entered the Neapolitan court - but it was only mounted there during the first decades of the 15th century. It still might be the earlies documented Chinese luxury porcelain object in Europe, but - flattering as it would be to us - there is absolutely no proof of it ever being in Hungary. When it comes to oriental objects in 14th-century Hungary, we have to settle for less spectacular pieces, such as this Syrian albarello recovered at the royal palace of Visegrád.

Even if the Fonthill vase was never in the Hungarian court, there is one more reason why this objects is featured in a blog on medieval Hungary. Soon after the Gaigneres drawing had been published by Mazerolle in 1897, another watercolor illustration of the mounted vase came on the market in Paris, which was duly purchased by Jenő Radisics, director of the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest. This colored drawing is kept to this days at the Archives of the Museum where I work - and is illustrated here for the first time in color. You can also see the object in the collection database of the Museum of Applied Arts

Reference: Jenő Horváth: The pedigree of Louis the Great's ewer. In: Louis the Great, king of Hungary and Poland. Ed. Vardy, Steven B. - Grosschmid, Géza - Domonkos, Leslie S. New York, 1986. 325-345.

UPDATE 2021 - I summarized the history and the research history of the Fonthill Vase in a brief study, which you can access on my page.

Watercolor of the Fonthill vase with its medieval mounting
 © Museum of Applied Arts (Iparművészeti Múzeum), Budapest


  1. With all of the buzz in Chinese porcelain right now, this piece could probably solve all of Ireland's financial problems with one swoop!

  2. Thanks, that was a great article. I wonder if the Nestorian Christians came to Syria or Egypt by the well-established maritime trade routes in the South China Sea and Indian ocean, and thence to Naples on their way to Rome. If they did visit in 1338, it's too bad they didn't bring some Yuan blue and white porcelain as well! The Fonthill vase, being Qingbai ware, was a little bit old-fashioned by then.

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