Paintings on Porcelain From the Santa Margarita (1601)


Manila galleons such as the Santa Margarita were limited to one round trip a year from Manila to Acapulco…and they made the most of it, crowding cargo and contraband into every nook and cranny, and typically replacing thousands of pounds of stone ballast in the depths of its hold with thousands—sometimes twenty thousand and more--pieces of hand painted porcelain.  As the Santa Margarita broke up on Rota’s northern shore, the delicate porcelain sank into the reef or was scattered across the reef and lagoon, where longshore currents spread it along the beach to be broken into progressively smaller shards by tropical storms and typhoons.

The concentration of porcelain shards on shore furnished the first clue to the remains of the Santa Margarita.  In contrast to small shards on shore the size of a fingernail, larger fragments embedded in the reef bear striking and complete paintings.  Ship’s beams, boxes, ingots, storage jars, gems, beads, carved ivory, and all the treasure which makes up a wrecked Manila galleon were mixed together over the years, and gradually were covered over by 20 feet of dead coral and sand, which typhoons episodically shift from shore to reef and back again.  The process scours, breaks and corrodes artifacts from the ship, some of which are now lost.  After locating the ship in 1995, IOTA Partners initiated an ambitious plan to recover the fully laded Manila galleon.  It will be the first such recovery in history.  It has already yielded valuable artifacts which contributed to, and in some cases revised, historic, cultural and artistic information about 16th Century China, Spain, and its colonies.  

The Chinese export porcelain recovered from the Santa Margarita was referred to as “Kraak” porcelain, after the 16th Century Portuguese carracks which brought the exciting new material to Europe, where its rarity and quality initially limited its purchase to wealthy buyers.  The porcelain had a major impact on European art.  Practically all of the earliest export porcelain was “blue and white,” consisting of blue cobalt painted onto white clay.  Each plate, saucer, bowl, and teacup, was painstakingly painted by hand, and preserved on the clay by a clear glaze.   

A book by Timothy Brook, published in 2008, provides an interesting perspective on the thousands of porcelain shards IOTA has recovered from the Santa Margarita. 

The book, Vermeer’s Hat, discusses Chinese porcelain of the 17th Century in terms of  paintings on porcelain.  Consequently, IOTA is reexamining its inventory of porcelain shards, and separating the larger shards with clearly defined painted images.  Upon completion of the project, and further analysis of the Santa Margarita’s cargo, the paintings on clay will be presented as paintings of quality and rarity, with a provenance both exciting and certain.  

It is required archeological practice to save all artifacts encountered, no matter how insignificant they may seem.  Thus, IOTA divers returned from the Santa Margarita site each day with containers holding hundreds of shards dug out of the reef.  The shards were brought to the surface, then to shore at the end of the day, and to IOTA’s laboratory where they were bagged in lots, recorded as inventory, desalinated for a week or more, and stored in plastic tubs.  While most small shards have no recognizable features, many larger shards bear remarkable images.  Men, birds, deer, horses, butterflies, fish and the like are portrayed in various settings.  Each animal had symbolic significance to the Chinese, such as long life, good fortune, and faithfulness. 

All porcelain pieces shown herein are from the Santa Margarita.

All porcelain pieces shown herein are from the Santa Margarita.

The following excerpts from Vermeer’s Hat provides interesting new information about the Santa Margarita’s porcelain.  

“Vermeer was among the first generations of Dutch painters to see Chinese painting, rarely on silk or paper, more commonly on porcelain.  It has been suggested that his use of “Delft blue,” his preference for off-white backgrounds to set off blue materials, his taste for distorting perspective and enlarging foregrounds, and his willingness to leave backgrounds empty betray a Chinese influence.”[1]

“The first Chinese porcelain to reach Europe amazed all who saw or handled it.  Europeans could think only of crystal when pressed to describe the stuff.  The glazed surfaces were hard and lustrous, the underglaze designs sharply defined, the colors brilliantly vivid.  The walls of the finest pieces were so thin that you could see the shadow of your hand on the other side when you lifted a plate or cup to the light.

   Chinese soup bowl, at wreck site

 Chinese soup bowl, at wreck site

“The style that most caught the attention of Europeans was blue-and-white: thin white porcelain painted with cobalt blue and coated in a perfectly transparent glaze.  This style was actually a late development in the history of Chinese ceramics.  The potters of Jingdezhen, the kiln city in the inland province of Jiangxi where imperial orders were regularly filled, developed the technology to fire true porcelain only in the fourteenth century.  Porcelain production requires driving kiln temperatures up to 1,300 degrees Celsius, high enough to turn the glazing mixture to a glassy transparency and fuse it with the body.  Trapped permanently between the two were the blue pictures and patterns that so captured the eye.

“European buyers were delighted by the effect of blue on white.  Although we think of deep cobalt blue lines and figures on a pure white background as quintessentially Chinese, it is a borrowed, or at least an adapted, aesthetic.  At the time Chinese potters began firing true porcelain, China was under Mongol rule.  Once Persia and China were more directly linked by Mongol rule in the thirteenth century, Chinese potters had much better access to the Persian market.  Ever sensitive to the demands of that market, they adjusted the look of their products to appeal to Persian taste.  Part of this adaptation was to incorporate cobalt decoration into their designs.  As Chinese cobalt is paler than Persian, the potters of Jingdezhen began importing Persian cobalt to produce a color they thought would appeal to Persian buyers.


“Blue-and-white porcelain emerged from this long process of innovation.  It sold well in Persia, in part because of the Koran’s ban on eating from gold or silver plates.  The wealthy wanted to be able to serve guests on expensive tableware, and if they were blocked from presenting food on precious metals, they needed something as lovely and as expensive but that wasn’t available in the time of the Koran.  Porcelain from Jingdezhen fit the bill.  Mongol and Chinese buyers were also charmed by the look of this porcelain.  What we recognize as “china” today was born from this chance intercultural crossover of material and aesthetic factors, which transformed ceramic production worldwide.  Syrian potters in the court of Tamerlane, for instance, started making their products look Chinese early in the fifteenth century.  As the global trade in ceramics expanded in the sixteenth century to Mexico, the Middle East, and Iberia, and to England and the Netherlands in the seventeenth, potters in all of these places followed suit.  Everyone tried—though for a long while they also failed—to imitate the look and feel of Chinese blue-and-white.”[2] 

“One of the more striking hybrids to emerge from the potteries of Jingdezhen specifically designed to appeal to European taste is a large soup dish the Dutch called a klapmuts.  The shape of this dish was reminiscent of the cheap wool felt hats worn by the lower classes in Holland, hence the name. 

“The Chinese had no use for such a dish. The problem was soup.  Unlike European soup, Chinese soup is closer to broth than stew; it is a drink, not an entrée.  Etiquette, therefore, permits lifting your bowl to your lips to drink it.  This is why Chinese soup bowls have steep vertical sides:  to make it easier to drink from the brim.  European etiquette forbids lifting the bowl, hence the need for a big spoon specially designed for the purpose.  But try to place a European spoon in a Chinese soup bowl and over it goes: the sides are too high and the center of gravity not low enough to balance the weight of the handle.  Hence the flattened shape of the klapmuts, with the broad rim on which a European could rest his spoon without accident.”[3]

The Vermeer painting, above, Young Woman Reading a Letter by an Open Window” displays in the foreground a klapmuts bowl with its contents of fruit overflowing onto an oriental rug (see detail above).  Thus far, IOTA has recovered two whole klapmuts bowls from the Santa Margarita.  The larger bowl (shown left) was reconstructed from 23 shards in IOTA’s Rota laboratory.  It is about 95% complete.  It is posed to show the shape of the bowl in a setting similar to the one painted by Vermeer.  The same bowl is shown in an overhead view, below right.  Its center panel is shown below left, enlarged and with added contrast to clarify the images.  Note the duck in water reeds above a carp.  The painted strokes delineating the carp’s scales are the width of a human hair.  The scales are meant to suggest dragons, believed to have scales like a carp.  Carp/dragon scales surround the scene in the bottom of the bowl.


“…fish became associated with wealth and abundance.  Carp…represent not only wealth but also strength, courage and perseverance.  The long whiskers and scales reminded the Chinese of the dragon and its power and association with the emperor.”  

A smaller, but unbroken klapmuts bowl from the Santa Margarita is shown below left. Ducks were popular and often depicted in pairs, symbolic of marital happiness and fidelity.  They may be seen portrayed as part of a rebus,[4] for example a duck in water reeds (as in the center panel of the large klapmuts bowl above) can be read by 16th Century Chinese as ‘May you do well on your examinations.’”[5] 


“The English word Phoenix actually describes two different birds in China; the Red Bird of the South and another mythical bird with lavish feathers.  The Red Bird of the South was associated with good omens.”  In the painting above left, two phoenixes fly above four deer.

“Other birds were popular for their symbolic significance and connections with mythical lands and ideas. 

The crane (below left) was a popular subject as it represented longevity, and it was believed the Queen Mother of the West (Xi Wang Mu) rode to the Western Paradise on a white crane.” 

“Magpies are also birds of happiness and herald good news or the arrival of a visitor.”

“The horse, the seventh animal in the Chinese zodiac, also had mythical qualities attributed to it.  Winged horses were thought to represent the heavenly horses which the Han dynasty emperor Wudi wanted to import from Dayuan for use in his battle with the Xiongnu nomads.”  The larger, imported horses were far more effective in battle than the scrubby local horses.  On the other hand, they may have been meaner.  Note the painting within a painting, below right.  The horse is presented whimsically as a picture on a jug, or ewer, with his head turned and eyes fixed on the hapless Chinese about to get kicked into oblivion.  By design, the image is blurred at the edge.

Paintings from the Santa Margarita also display people, some engaged in mundane activities, such as poling a sampan.  Others are painted in enigmatic scenes that suggest more than they reveal.  All are painted in the finest detail: thousands of fine brush strokes of cobalt on clay, conveying through future centuries the brushwork that captivated Vermeer and others, and the symbolism of what was, or might have been, the mind-set in the Ming dynasty. 

Judging by the number of deer painted on porcelain from the Santa Margarita, they held particular significance for the Ming dynasty, symbolizing good health, good fortune and long life.  Below left is a whole plate, with two deer in a woodland setting.  The center painting was photographed underwater at the place where it was dug out of the reef.  The deer on the right decorated the inside bottom of a Chinese soup bowl.

At the outset of the industrial age, mechanical processes were developed to manufacture thousands of pieces of decorated tableware daily with a minimum of human involvement.  By the 21st Century, automated transfer patterns supplied blue and white scenes at a fraction of the cost of hand painting.  Consider the level of artistic detail on each piece of porcelain from the Santa Margarita.  Each piece is lavishly painted on both sides.  Hundreds if not thousands of brush strokes were required for a bowl, even to the stripes surrounding the foot of the bowl.  The time it took a skilled artist to paint one small plate is measured in hours, if not days.  And the time for artisans to produce enough paintings to fill a galleon’s hold staggers the imagination.  Yet the artistry of those 16th Century artists has survived--albeit in progressively smaller pieces--four hundred years in an episodically violent environment.  

Many images on clay were recovered before they were inevitably dashed against coral rocks, but many paintings are still embedded at the Santa Margarita site, and will not survive another 400 years.  IOTA’s tenacity has assured that the legacies of a few nameless artists in 16th Century China will be preserved.  It is hoped that excavation of the Santa Margarita will soon continue, and will save from certain destruction even the smallest bird painted in the bottom of the smallest tea cup on the reef.      










                                          Copyright IOTA Partners, September 17, 2008


[1] Vermeer’s Hat, the Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (Bloomsbury Press, 2008), pp 21-22.

[2] Ibid pp 60-62

[3] ibid pp 75-76

[4] A rebus is a word puzzle in which the syllables of words and names are represented by pictures or things that sound the same, e.g. Lion for Lyon.

[5] Scales, Feathers and Fur, Animals in Chinese Art from the Museum of East Asian Art, Bath, UK, Arts of Asia, March-April, 2003.