Medicinal objects in princely collections

Medicinal objects in princely collections

Medical concerns are evident not only in the commercial context of the apothecary shop and the academic context of the anatomy theatre but also in the Kunst- und Wunderkammer or chambers of natural and artistic wonders collected with special avidity by patricians and princes in the Holy Roman Empire in the decades around 1600.  These three examples come from the very apex of the hierarchy of collectors: from the matchless collections amassed in Prague by the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II (1552-1612). 

Image 1: Bezoar cup, c. 1600. A bezoar is a hard mass formed in the intestinal system of certain ruminants such as goats. The word 'bezoar' comes from the Persian word pād-zahr (پادزهر), which literally means 'antidote'. From at least the twelfth century, Muslim physicians held that a drinking vessle containing a bezoar was capable of neutralising any poison, and in consequence these objects were highly prized. In this case, Rudolf's artisans have gone one better by fashioning a large bezoar into a drinking vessel. The top has been sliced off and the middle hollowed out to create a cup; a lid of emanelled gold has been affixed above; and an oval foot and vase-like stem below have been attached to a band at the top by three clasps to avoid harming the precious object itself.

Image 2: Rhinoceros-horn cup, 1611. Rhinoceros horn is another natural substance traditionally credited with medicinal powers. Although today it is regarded as an aphrodisiac and remedy for impotence in folk medicine, in the court of Rudolf II it was rather supposed to repel calumny, evil, and the forces of the underworld. Hence the 'dichotomy of menace and mollification' which recurs across this remarkable object.* Warthog tusks (believed to be the horns of a mythical dragon called a 'wyvern') are refashioned to provide the horns of a two-headed beast, with fangs bared in the front (as shown) but subdued by restrains at the back. In his mouth is a fossilised shark's tooth, regarded as offering protection against poison. The lid below crawls with beetles, lizards, frogs and other subterranean creatures,m probably cast from like in Nuremberg.  Likewise, rhe rhoniceros horn itself has been carved to depict newts, insects, animal heads, and branches of coral; but above them emerge gentle human faces 'as symbols of the healing power of nature and the cosmos'.*

Image 3: Ewer made from a Seychelle nut, 1602. The most extravagant of these three objects was also the rarest.  It is half of a hollowed nut from the species Lodoicea maldivica, a plant endemic on only two small islands of the Seychelles archipelago. Since these islands were uninhabited and virtually unknown before the 1740s, the origin of the Seychelles nut remained a complete mystery during the seventeenth century. The nut is the largest fruit of any plant in the world, weighing up to 42 kg. When one of these fruits falls into the sea, its great weight and density mean that it sinks straight to the bottom. After a considerable period on the seabed, however, the husk falls away, the internal parts of the nut decay, and gases forming inside cause the nut to rise to the surface.  The dense nuts can drift for thousands of kilometres on ocean currents without decaying further and were known and prized in medieval times in many parts of the Indian Ocean. Seamen from the Malaysia – over 5,000 kilometres away – occasionally observed coco de mer nuts ‘falling upwards’ from the sea floor.  From this they concluded that these nuts must grow on underwater trees, in a forest at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Hence the name ‘sea coconut’, from the French ‘coco de mer’, which is still commonly used today. Early European explorers communicated this lore to eager readers back home. João de Barros (1496–1570), the first great historian of Portuguese exploits in Asia, added testimony regarding the healing properties to the coco de mer, which he thought to be superior even to those of ‘the precious stone Bezoar’. Local peoples prized it accordingly.  In the Maldives (2,000 kilometres east of the Seychelles), any ‘sea coconut’ found in the ocean or on the shore was regarded as the property of the king, and anyone withholding such a nut for himself or selling it to another could face the death penalty. Rudolf II nevertheless managed to purchase one for the vast sum of 4,000 gold florins. Hence the exquisite craftsmanship deployed in creating the marine images which dominate the work: Neptune rides a hippocampi on the lid (his trident missing); two back-to-back tritons carry the pitcher (which has been hollowed out to carry liquid); the half-nut forms the shape of a ship, with further maritime motifs carved into its the surface. 

Literature. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Prag um 1600: Kunst und Kultur am Hofe Rudolfs II, 2 vols (Freren, 1988), vol. 1, nos. 339-41; E. Scheicher, 'Zur Ikonologie Naturalien im Zusammenhang der enzyklopädischen Kunstkammer', Anzeiger des Germanischen Nationalmuseums (1995), pp. 115-25; Karl-Heinz Spiess, ‘The Euro-Asian Trade in Bezoar Stones (approx. 1500 to 1700)’, in Michael North (ed.), Artistic and Cultural Exchanges between Europe and Asia, 1400-1900: Rethinking Markets, Workshops and Collections (London, 2010); * Sabine Haag and Franz Kirchweger, eds., Treasures of the Habsburgs (London, 2013), pp. 198-203.