This bowl is painted with four armorial-style shields containing a hydra with the heads of two humans and five fabulous beasts. The shields have streamers with the Latin maxim, ‘Septenti nihil novum’ (sic) [To the wise man nothing is new]. The remaining decorative motifs are Chinese.
The exact source of this Western design has not yet been traced. The motif has been compared to a similar hydra in a printed illustration in Camillo Camilli’s “Impresse Illustri” (Venice, 1586) and to another hydra on the stone façade of the cathedral of St. Paul, Macau carved 1620–27. However, neither of these hydras is contained within a shield nor do they have the Latin motto.
This specific design appears in seventeenth-century Portugal, Holland, and Iran, suggesting that specially commissioned wares could also be sold more widely in the late Ming dynasty. A dish with the same motif forms part of a pyramid-shaped ceiling festooned with Ming porcelain in the Santos Palace, Lisbon, Portugal.
Among those pieces collected by Don Manuel I, King of Portugal (reigned 1495–1521) and his successors, it is the only piece of Chinese porcelain with a European motif and inscription.
An identical bowl is depicted in a somewhat later Dutch still-life oil-painting, by Willem Claesz Heda (1594–about 1681), dated 1638. An earthenware bowl closely imitating this piece, made in Iran in the second half of the 17th century, is in the V&A Museum.
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Harrison-Hall, Ming ceramics (London, The British Museum Press, 2001)
Krahl and J. Harrison-Hall, Ancient Chinese trade ceramics(National Museum of History, ROC, 1994)
S.J. Vainker, Chinese pottery and porcelain (London, The British Museum Press, 1991)