The term Celadon has dual uses in the context of Chinese ceramics. It refers to the beautiful jade green glazed porcelain, also known as greenware, which was made famous by the Longquan kilns in China’s South-eastern Zhejiang province, and also to the glaze itself with which these pieces were decorated.
The effect is produced by adding small amounts of iron oxide to a glaze, before firing at high temperatures. The balance of iron oxide is essential to the process, too much will produce a black glaze, while too little will turn the glaze blue. In fact, pieces produced in a single firing can vary in colour significantly due to the variations in temperature caused by their differing locations in a kiln.
The technique can be found in earthenware pottery as far back as the Shang Dynasty, circa 1600 BC-1045 BC, although surviving examples tend to be more brown or yellow in colour. The more familiar style of Celadon ware originated at the beginning of the Northern Song Dynasty, 960-1127 AD.
Celadon-glazed items were highly prized by the Imperial Court as the colour closely resembled Jade, which itself had been sought after since the time of the earliest Chinese Dynasties and was commonly considered to be the “Imperial gem”.
Following the selection of Hangzhou as the new capital of the Southern Song Dynasty in 1132, Celadon production at the nearby Longquan kilns escalated to industrial proportions with around 500 kilns in operation in the city.
In addition to the Imperial court. the most popular patrons of celadon ware the social class known as Scholar-officals or literati. These were highly educated politicians and government officials appointed by the Emperor who formed the Elite upper class of Imperial Chinese society.
Celadon wares were also used in religious ceremonies with many early examples taking the form of ancient ritual bronzes. In addition to the domestic market, they were exported in vast numbers throughout Japan, Korea and Thailand where the best surviving pieces can often be found in temples.
Another major export market for Celadon was the Islamic world, in particular India, Persia and Egypt. In fact, one of the most important collections in the world, numbering more than 1300 pieces belonged to the Ottoman Emperors, and is now on display at the museum at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
One unusual and potentially apocryphal reason for its popularity in the Middle East was the widely held misconception that celadon ware would shatter or change colour if it came into contact with poisoned food.
Notably, one of the first Celadon pieces to arrive in Europe came via the Middle East when Florentine statesman Lorenzo de’ Medici was presented with a Longquan dish by Qaitbay, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt and Syria in 1487.
Celadon ware remained popular throughout the early years of the Ming Dynasty but began to decline in fashion due to the emerging demand and popularity of the blue and white porcelain being manufactured at the Jingdezhen kilns. By the early 1500s, the market and quality of production in Longquan celadon was severely diminished.
The use of the term celadon to describe the Longquan wares was first used by European collectors, although its origins are a source of debate. The popular theory is that the ceramics are named after the pale green ribbons worn by the shepherd Celadon, hero of Honoré d'Urfé’s 17th century Romantic novel L'Astrée.
An alternative theory is that the term is a linguistic corruption of Salah ad-Din or Saladin, the 12th century founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty, who in 1171 sent a gift of 40 pieces of greenware to Nur ad-Din, Sultan of Syria.