20 June 2013

Elias Geyer's Navy: Fantastical Sea Shell and Silver Drinking Vessels of the 16th and 17th Centuries

Poseidon astride a seahorse, nautilus with jeweled silver gilt mounts,
Elias Geyer, Leipzig, ca. 1590
Copyright Parvum Opus

First, please allow me to beg forgiveness for my extended absence and warmly welcome you back to the Parvum Opus blog! It has been a whirlwind of a spring, with an over-full schedule of fascinating work at the bindery, and a chain of happy family events. I've missed our wonderful conversations and am so happy to return to a more normal schedule now. I can't wait to see what my favorite bloggers have been up to over these past few weeks... 

We are, shockingly, half way through the month of June, and I haven't yet shared the interesting  history of the gilt-mounted nautilus shell that I chose to paint for our calendar this month. The piece shown above was created by Elias Geyer in Leipzig around 1590. A well respected metalsmith at the time, he imagined and fabricated a flotilla of fantastical creatures like sea horses and unicorns with heads and upper bodies executed in jeweled and gilt silver, and hindparts made from exquisitely large turban snail shells. 

A pair of Geyer's sea horse drinking vessels: the cup opens via a hinge at the edge where the sea horse
body and shell meet. Courtesy of the Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest.
Copyright ArsDecorativa.

An Elias Geyer drinking vessel in the form of a basilisk, ca. 1600.
From the collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

In the course of researching this very interesting class of objects, I came across an acquisition proposal written by Dr. Eike D. Schmidt of the Minneapolis Institute of arts. Here is his description of the cultural conditions that produced such fanciful works: 

"From the end of the 16th century, Nautilus shells from the Indo-Pacific Ocean were imported into Europe on a regular basis, where they were admired for their exotic origins and geometric perfection. The fact that their interior chambers follow a logarithmic spiral was interpreted in early modern thought as evidence for the theory that nature from its greatest manifestations (macrocosm) to its smallest details (microcosm) follows a thorough plan. They were seen as proof of the convergence of the bodily and spiritual worlds... and often ultimately of the existence of God. Whereas a few nautilus shells were made into liturgical objects (incense burners), the vast majority were mounted as secular drinking vessels by, generally, outfitting them with mounts of silver, gilt silver and gold figures alluding to the Sea or the element of water (as the nautilus’s original habitat). Silver-mounted nautilus shells were among the most characteristic products of the famous gold- and silversmithing workshops of Augsburg and Nuremberg in Southern Germany and were sought after by collectors all over Europe."

Another Geyer drinking vessel, this time in the form of a griffin bearing a halberd.
From the collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

Dr. Schmidt  continues: "Nautilus cups were (and continue to be) among the most prestigious trophy objects within silver collections, and as such they were frequently represented in still life
paintings, such as those by Willem Claesz. Heda (Dutch, 1594 – c. 1670). But they are
particularly representative of the objects collected in the Renaissance ‘cabinets of curiosities,’ a type of collection, which is an important forerunner of the modern museum as an institution. Striving to put together the rarest and most exotic, wondrous products of nature with the most astonishing accomplishments of human inventiveness and dexterity, that is of naturalia and artificialia as they were called at the time, princes and the richest merchants of the 16th and 17th centuries put together the first large collections of zoological, botanical, and mineralogical specimens blended with the most exquisite works of art. These “cabinets of curiosities” were also known as Kunst- und Wunderkammern (“chambers of art and wonder”). They first emerged in the territory of the Holy Roman Empire and in central Europe, before spreading throughout the remainder of the continent. By combining natura and artificium in a single work, Nautilus cups can be seen as pars pro toto ["a part (taken) for the whole"] embodiments of the very concept of collecting that informed the “cabinets of curiosities” at large."

If you'd like to read more about these works, I've included a link to a 2005 New York Times article, "When fantastical trumps function", by Souren Melikian.

Still Life with Nautilus, attributed to Willem Claesz Heda.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.