Cabinet of Curiosities

apothecary cabinet

This week’s Cabinet of Curiosity comes from the Rijksmuseum; Apothecary Cabinet from Delft, 1730.  The contents complete with a myriad of glass containers and pottery.  Obviously something highly prized considering the condition of all the accessories, some complete with their original contents.

delft containers

In 1543, a Rouen potter made a large number of drug pots for a local apothecary and decorated in the Italian style.  The art of enameling was introduced to The Netherlands in the 16th century by Italian potters who settled in Antwerp.  The Dutch town of Delft became famous for the manufacture of tin-glazed earthenware decorated in the blue and white imitation of Chinese porcelain, then being imported by the Dutch East India Company.

glass bottles skeleton painting

Interior painting detail

Remains of items in glass

Due to the overwhelming success of the Dutch potters, the general term Delftware eventually replaced the terms majolica and faience for the tin-glazed earthenware of Holland.  The most typical of Delft apothecary jars is the peacock motif consisting of two peacocks standing on either side of a basket of fruit with an angel’s head below.  Three examples can be seen on a stamp from Belgium.  The ewer is labeled MERCURIAL, for Oxymel of Mercury; the Delft pot with a metal cover is labeled GENTAINE, for Extract of Gentian; and the third pot is inscribed PHILO(N) ROM(ANUM), a name given to a widely used confection of opium.

Delft apothecary jars

Let us look inside the drawers and imagine some curiosities contained therein:

prayer nut

A prayer nut was an extravagant devotional object from the late Middle Ages; two silver plated pieces of carved wood with a diameter of 4.8cm joined together form the round nut.  The small ball was carried around by the wealthy on a silver chain.  The nut was not used exclusively for prayer, but also displayed as a status symbol and admired for the extremely detailed carvings found inside.  Turpenoids (aromatic fragrances) had been inserted within the delicate filigree.  These fragrances were intended to heighten the emotional experience for the person using the Prayer Nut.

Prayer nut close up

For the latest in technology to view this microcosm of art, Augmented Reality offers a new virtual tour.  By printing the barcode and holding it up to your webcam, you will be able to navigate the interior of the Rijksmuseum’s Prayer Nut, examining the carvings in minute detail.  Better than holding it in your hand!

ancient curse revealed

Another personal item small enough to fit in this cabinet would be the ancient curse tablet.  Currently on view at the Getty Villa, this tablet was thrown into a pit in the sanctuary of the Gods of the Underworld at Morgantina around 100 BC.  In total, 10 curse tables have been excavated from the pit.  Incredibly, four of these all curse the same woman!  Using almost exactly the same wording, the four call on the Gods of the Underworld to take a slave-girl named Venusta back with them to the realm of the dead – in other words, for her to go to hell.  The one on view at the Getty reads:

Gaia, Hermes, Gods of the Underworld, receive Venusta, slave of Rufus.

misery of idleness george morland before 1790

The final item in this week’s cabinet cannot be contained in any of these small spaces.  A huge undertaking by the Scottish National Galleries to digitize their entire collection into a searchable database is now complete.  Digital initiatives such as this are great exposure for the treasures a museum holds in their vast storage rooms.  One small setback to this leap into virtual tourism can be the difficulty in searching the database.  The Scottish National Gallery has solved this problem with a tab call “Hitlist.”  Navigating the top searches opens other tabs to etours, and related images.  My favorite discovery to date is George Morland’s “The Misery of Idleness”, 1790.

Morland’s work of the 1780s highlighted the moral shortcomings of domestic life, influenced by William Hogarth (1697-1764).  A notoriously heavy drinker and debtor, Morland spent the final years of his life enduring intermittent bouts in prison and eventually died of alcoholism at age 41.  His flamboyant lifestyle became the subject of four anecdotal biographies immediately after his death.

This concludes a full year of my Cabinet of Curiosities.  I really enjoy putting these together from the bits of research I find on the web, and they have taken on a life of their own through other readers.  Do you have any suggestions for the Cabinet?  I will be happy to chat with you about Curiosities!

Cheers to the New Year!



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  1. Pingback: Tech Stuff 37 | The Arts Mechanical

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