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Nautilus Cups

Germany has traditionally been known as a leader in silver and goldsmithing. In the 16-17th centuries masters from the two most prolific centers, Augsburg and Nuremberg, with their numerous Italian artisans produced silverware of remarkable quality and elegance, especially drinking vessels in the impressive variety.
Nuremberg silversmiths made goblets, bowls and beakers of all kinds and various shapes, often using natural shells or their imitations from semiprecious stones or metals, ostrich eggs, narwhal teeth and coconut shells to fabricate cups, bowls and other vessels for purely decorative purposes. Works from these materials had a symbolic meaning for ostrich egg were believed to be laid by Phoenix and narwhal teeth were taken to be horns of the mythical Unicorn.

Cup with the Figures of Neptune and a Swan on the Lid, c.1600, Germany

In Europe beginning in the 16th century princes and monarchs, aristocrats and wealthy merchants collected such rarities representing a “theater of the universe”- the wonders of nature (naturalia) and the wonders of human creativity (artificialia) in “cabinet of curiosities” or kunstkamer (“art room”). These collections often included European paintings and art objects; insects and shells; and exotic art and artifacts from Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The size alone of a nautilus shell marked it for admiration, as did its exotic origins (the East Indies). But when transformed by the skill of the goldsmith into a fanciful goblet, such a curiosity became doubly prized, combining the best aspects of the art of both nature and humankind to represent “God’s natural order.”

Balthasar Permoser, Bernhard Quipp, by 1707

Ostrich Egg Cup, Clement Kicklinger, Augsburg, 1570s 

Middle of the 17th century, Germany

Nautilus Cup, 1746-1758, Poland

Nautilus Cup, Decorated with Figure of Neptune, 1640-70, Germany

Nautilus Cup, Poland, Gdansk (Danzig), c.1650

An unusual Nautilus Cup in the form of an ostrich. The spiral-shaped core of the shell has been cut off and is covered with the bird’s tail. The upper part of the body and legs are made of gilt silver. An amethyst has been worked into the head and the eyes of the bird are made of ivory, with the pupils painted in black. The shell itself is painted with garlands and birds flapping into ascent

Unknown Goldsmith, Dutch, 1592

Nautilus Cup: Hunter and Eagle’s Claw Foot, around 1580-1610, Germany

Jan Jacobsz van Royesteyn, Dutch, about 1549-1604

Nautilus cup, German, probably Breslau, mid-Seventeenth Century, probably Hans Boxhammer
Nautilus-Shell Cup, 17 c., German, Augsburg

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  1. Thanks for your amazing and beautiful post. Are these together in a collection or do you know where these are displayed?

    1. no, they are not in a collection, they might be on display in Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and in Dresden.


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