Three Chinese Islamic Altar Vessels

While traveling throughout Asia, Isabella acquired three porcelain vessels covered with vine patterns and stylized scriptures. Read how these Chinese artifacts detail Arabic phrases from the central religious text of Islam and give us a greater global perspective.

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In the Yellow Room, a cabinet along the south wall of the gallery contains nearly 100 ceramics primarily from Asia and Europe.

Centrally displayed on the top shelf are a set of three Chinese vessels: a box, a vase, and a three-legged incense burner. Beautifully adorned with a gourd-vine pattern, each of these porcelain vessels have stylized Arabic inscriptions in relief on their exteriors. The inscriptions contain frequently repeated phrases from the Quran, the central religious text of Islam. The box, for example, has an inscription along the top of the lid that in English would be translated to ‘Praise be to God.’

The vase bears two inscriptions along its surface; the first reads ‘King’ in English, and the second ‘Praise be to God.’

Finally, the incense burner bears three inscriptions; the first declaring ‘No God but Allah,’ the second states ‘He is the apostle of God,’ and the third inscription reads ‘And Muhammad is his prophet.’ Considering that the inscriptions are in Arabic and quote the Quran, it is possible that these three vessels were made as ceremonial objects for a Mosque.

Isabella Stewart Gardner probably purchased these three altar vessels in China while traveling across Asia in 1883-84. Isabella visited Beijing’s Niujie Mosque, which was first built in 996. It is the oldest and largest mosque in the Chinese capital, and her visit there may have inspired her purchase of these Chinese Islamic ceremonial objects. Embarking from China, she and her husband Jack traveled through several Islamic countries, which she documented thoroughly in her travel diary.

A photo of a mosque

Isabella Stewart Gardner (American, 1840-1924), Travel Album: Egypt, the Holy Land, Greece, and Turkey, 1875 (v.1.a.3.8, p. 12)
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Isabella kept her travel albums in her personal treasure trove, the Vatichino


Found on a loose piece of ledger paper within her diary entries from this trip is an Islamic prayer: "O Allah, O, O all powerful. Thou art my God, and sufficient to me is the knowledge of it. We pray Thee for safety in our going forth and in our comings in, our works and designs, our dangers and doubts. Subject unto us this Sea as Thou didst subject the deep unto Moses, and subject to us all the Seas in Earth and Heaven, the Sea of Life and the Sea of Futurity, O Thou who reignest over everything, and unto whom all things return."

Muslim people have lived in China for about 1,400 years. Today they represent only a small part of the country’s population. Sadly, like many religious minorities around the world, Chinese Muslims—including the Uyghur people living in the Northwest province of Xinjiang today—have been persecuted. Isabella did not document meeting any Muslim people while in China, but the inclusion of this Islamic prayer along with the purchase of these three Islamic altar vessels highlights her pointed interest in understanding the religion.

The Yellow Room
The Yellow Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
Photo: Sean Dungan

Next time you find yourself in the Yellow Room, look for these three small vessels that Isabella so carefully placed and take a moment to dwell on the greater global context that all of the pieces in her collection are a part of.

*Isabella Stewart Gardner (American, 1840-1924), Travel Diary, 1883-84 (ARC.009111)

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