Saxon miner cup

WB.121     1866–72 • Silver-gilt, chalcedony cup • standing cup

Curator's Description

Standing cup; bowl shell-shaped; brown onyx; supported on head of miner of silver-gilt; stands on quatrefoil base with plants in relief, all silver-gilt; surrounded by crystals of smoky quartz; wyvern in silver-gilt at back of bowl.

This object was collected by Anselm von Rothschild and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

13.4 cm wide, 23 cm high, 12.7 cm deep, and it weighs 1.4 kg

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1991a:-

Origin: Uncertain; no silver punch-marks; previously described as 'German (Saxon?), about 1650'; more probably made by Reinhold Vasters of Aachen (Germany) c. 1865-70, but certainly before 1872.

Marks: No punch-marks have been struck on this piece.

Provenence: Baron Anselm von Rothschild, Vienna, between 1866 and 1872 (cat no. 565), by inheritance to his son Baron Ferdinand Rothschild (d. 1898).

Commentary: In Schestag 1872, this standing-cup was described as “17 Jahrhundert” and as representing a young miner (“. . . auf einer Rauchtopasgruppe stechenden Bergknappen . . .”). In both Read 1902 and Dalton 1927 the miner was described as “surrounded by a number of crystals of smoky quartz” and the attribution was changed to “German (Saxon?), about 1650”. However, neither in 1872 nor in either of the subsequent publications was the construction of this exceptional piece described, nor was any attempt made to relate it to other objects incorporating similar features.

Probably the single most disturbing aspect of the method of mounting this chalcedony bowl is its dependence on, firstly, the drilling of a small hole (at an oblique angle) into the front of the shell (as it begins to curve upwards from the calyx) and, secondly, on hooking a bent pin (attached to the end of a projecting frond from the calyx) into that unmounted tiny hole. Such a solution is entirely inconsistent with known Renaissance workshop practice.

Similarly, the method of fixing the silver-gilt dragon on to the rim of the chalcedony bowl is equally uncharacteristic of Renaissance craftsmanship and recorded techniques. The goldsmith has not only attached a curving tube to the inside of the dragon's spine so that the other end of the tube, which protrudes through the open underside of the dragon, can be inserted into an obliquely drilled and unmounted hole close to the rim of the chalcedony shell, but he has also left two blind holes visible on either side of the dragon.

The dragon itself has a strangely doglike head and a pair of wings that have developed a curious U-shaped smooth hump as they appear to unfold on either side of the scaly body. This dragon, so implausible within the context of the repertoire of Renaissance ornament, can be compared with the recumbent dog by the faker Reinhold Vasters (1827-1909) on the jasper shell cup in the Altman Bequest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (reg. no. 1913, 14-40, 657; see Y. Hackenbroch, Reinhold Vasters, Goldsmith, ‘The Metropolitan Museum Journal’, vol. 19/20, New York, 1986, p. 235, figs 152-6, where these gold enamelled mounts have not only been conclusively identified as the work of Vasters in Aachen but also associated with three related designs preserved among the 1,079 Vasters workshop drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum: reg. nos E. 2614-1919, E. 2626-1919 and E. 3445-1919). Although the Vasters recumbent dog has a very similar head, it does not have wings, and it is therefore necessary to compare the U-shaped humps of the dragon's wings with identically formed wings depicted in another pair of Vasters' designs (Victoria and Albert Museum, reg. no. E. 2625-1919 and E. 3359-1919; see Hackenbroch 1986, p. 242, figs 166-7). The latter pair of designs are for a gold-mounted rock-crystal shell-shaped standing-cup surmounted by a recumbent winged sphinx-like creature with long tail and fish-fin 'claws'; however, the drawing of its wings (in both designs) is unambiguously clear and they are, beyond doubt, U-shaped - in exactly the same distinctive way as the silver-gilt dragon's wings on the miner chalcedony standing-cup. No objects that correspond with these two drawings have come to light but a third Vasters drawing (reg. no. E. 2634-1919) shows a similar sphinx, without any wings but with a scaly spine and long tail, mounted on a shell-shaped bowl - all very reminiscent of the solution on the Waddesdon Bequest standing-cup (see Hackenbroch 1986, p. 242, fig. 166). Significantly, this drawing is another example of Vasters' method of cutting up drawings, thereby interchanging the stems, the bowls - and even the feet - of these standing-cups of hardstone and rock-crystal.

In conclusion, therefore, the workshop of Reinhold Vasters seems to have been responsible for the entire upper part of this standing-cup: the thick, crudely carved chalcedony bowl, the double-layer calyx and attached 'cushion' beneath, and the heavily cast silver-gilt recumbent dragon - technically so like the figures on the Vasters quartz standing-cup (WB.122). Perhaps even more significantly, Vasters would seem to have been responsible, in this period between 1866 and 1872, for devising a relatively primitive method of holding the shell-shaped bowl rigidly within the silver-gilt calyx and the long tail of the dragon. It is true that it necessitated drilling two oblique holes in the chalcedony - contrary to Renaissance practice - but, at this stage in his career, such a crude solution was evidently acceptable to his patron who may have commissioned this work specifically with the intention of selling it to an ageing collector like Baron Anselm.

The artistic conception of this standing-cup is, however, highly original, especially the sculptural 'caryatid' figure of a miner clambering among a rocky landscape of crystals of smoky quartz. Prototypes for such a composition among the precious Schatzkammer objects belonging to the famous princely collections of Europe are neither obvious today nor were they likely to have been in the 1860s, although in the Kunstkammer at Schloss Ambras the collection of the Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol (died 1596) contains some wonderfully imaginative groups of coral, shells and rocks, inhabited partly by carved mythological figures and partly by animals. Many of the little creatures that had been introduced were made of glass or bronze, perhaps even gilded, and these compositions were often mounted in cabinets (see Elisabeth Scheicher, The Collection of Archduke Ferdinand II at Schloss Ambras, ‘The Origins of Museums’, ed. O. Impey and A. MacGregor, Oxford, 1985, pp. 29-38, figs 13-14). Similarly, the small Kunstschrank in the Hapsburg collections in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, is crowned with minerals and shells (see C. W. Fock, Het zogenaamde kunstkabinetje van Rudolf II, ‘Leids Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek’, I, 1982, pp. 199-209). But undoubtedly the most spectacular and justly renowned creation of this kind is the 'mountain' of minerals, shells and other naturalia, including coral twigs (black, white and red) and above all a rare Seychelles palm nut mounted in silver, at the very summit of the Kunstschrank of Gustavus Adolphus. This monumental tour de force, produced by a team of craftsmen working between 1625 and 1631 under Philipp Hainhofer of Augsburg, has been since 1694 a treasured possession of the University of Uppsala, Sweden (see J. Böttiger, ‘Philipp Hainhofer und der Kunstschrank Gustav Adolfs in Uppsala’, 4 vols, Stockholm, 1909-10; H. O. Boström in ‘En Värld i miniatyr’, Stockholm, 1982, pp. 12-48, col. pl.; for a discussion of the Kunstschrank's Seychelles palm-nut ewer, see WB.125).

There can be little doubt that the 'mountain' on this Kunstschrank in Uppsala was the source of inspiration for the creator of the miner chalcedony standing-cup that emerged from Vasters' workshop and arrived in Vienna before 1872. When viewed in the normal way from below, the 'mountain' presents a jagged silhouette of polygonal and faceted crystals (often tapering to clean-cut points) interspersed with the bare outlines of the twigs of coral and other encrustations; above these colourful forms emerges a silver sculpture by Johannes I Lencker, of Augsburg, which forms the stem of the ewer. It is a figure of a man with gilded hair and beard supporting on his shoulders the Seychelles palm nut that forms the body of the ewer. The figure, apparently struggling under the weight, supports the side of the nut with his upraised right hand while pushing upwards with his outstretched left arm. The pose is not unlike that of the miner on the London standing-cup but there are two immediately obvious differences: firstly, Lencker's silver figure is a vigorously modelled nude; secondly, it is depicted in the more traditional half-kneeling or crouching position - derived from well-known Italian Renaissance works of sculpture. Nevertheless, in the absence of a closer parallel this combination of a powerful silver sculpture and a 'mountain' of minerals and other naturalia would seem to be the most likely source, especially as the Kunstschrank of Gustavus Adolphus was both well known and accessible for study in the University of Uppsala.

The decision to substitute the figure of a clothed miner for the crouching athletic figure may have been dictated by Vasters' inability to model in silver the nude human form - always the greatest test of any artist or craftsman. The choice of a figure wearing the well-known uniform of the Saxon miners is unexpected, especially in a late Renaissance Kunstkammer work of art, although its juxtaposition with the crystals of smoky quartz is convincing enough intellectually, since the wealth of the Saxon mines had become legendary even before the eighteenth century, when their prosperity brought privileges that were publicly and dramatically encouraged by the Elector and his Court in Dresden. However, both iconographically and stylistically this genre figure seems unknown in German silver of the seventeenth century, even when designed to serve as a 'caryatid' stem figure for a standing-cup. It is, for example, in complete contrast with the Waddesdon Bequest's magnificent parcel-gilt three smiths cup of 1690 by Marx Weinold of Augsburg, which epitomises the fashion for ostentatious plate among the guilds of Germany and Switzerland (see WB.127 (Hugh Tait, ‘Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum: Vol. II. The Silver Plate’, London, 1988, pp. 289-92, col. pl. XVI, figs 305-9)). The three free-standing figures forming the stem are depicted soberly hammering at the anvil with their shirtsleeves rolled up and their leather aprons hanging in front of their knee-breeches, but each is wearing his 'pill-box' hat; even the fourth standing figure of a smith majestically crowning the tall cup (42.7 cm) is similarly attired in an identical gilded hat. In Saxony itself- at the Dresden Court, for example - a tall, bejewelled cup and cover (H. 46 cm) was created around an older rock-crystal bowl at the end of the seventeenth century, and silver (parcel gilt) was used for both the gem-set mounts and, more importantly, the stem, which is in the form of a freestanding figure reaching up to pluck the grapes above his head (see U. Arnold in ‘Barok in Dresden’, held in the Villa Hügel zu Essen, exh. cat., Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Leipzig, 1986, p. 401, no. 526, col. pl. on p. 380). This splendid piece of sculptural silver by an anonymous German (Saxon?) goldsmith, was listed in the ‘Inventar des Pretiosensaal’ of 1733 (p. 201 ff.) and, most strikingly, shares none of the disturbing characteristics of the miner figure that now forms the stem of this chalcedony standing-cup.

Indeed, the tentative attribution of the London piece to a goldsmith in Saxony, which was first published in Read 1902, was probably influenced by the generally accepted supposition that the figure represented a Saxon miner - albeit in a more dramatic pose than any in the well-known set of mid-eighteenth-century Meissen porcelain figures of Saxon miners in their official uniforms. Each of these individual figures wears a 'pill-box' hat with the emblem of crossed picks prominently gilded on the front, a jacket and breeches with large kneeguards and a leather apron worn hanging down at the back. The porcelain figures were adapted c.1750 by the Meissen factory's modellers, J. J. Kändler and P. Reinicke, from the popular set of prints of the Saxon miners that had been published by Christoph Weigel at Nuremberg in 1721 (see E. Zimmermann, ‘Meissner Porzellan’, Leipzig, 1926, p. 196, fig. 61; W. B. Honey, ‘Dresden China’, London, 1954, p. 115, pl. LIII; R. Rückert, ‘Meissener Porzellan 1710-1810’, exh. cat., Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, 1966, nos 895-7, pls 219-20; for an illustration of the very rare Meissen table centre of the rocky landscape at the pit-head with ten miners engaged in various activities, see ‘Meissner Porzellan von 1710 bis zur Gegenwart’, exh. cat., Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst, Vienna, 1982, no. 38 with col. pl.; for one of the few complete sets of Meissen figures of the Saxon miners, see the collection formed by the late Lord Fisher and displayed in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). Whilst the uniform worn by the silver figure on the chalcedony standing-cup corresponds in some respects - especially the apron hanging down at the back - it is perhaps important to note that he is depicted wearing neither the large kneeguards nor the emblazoned hat. The wearing of the uniform without the hat is most unexpected, but even more curious is the inclusion of a hood as an integral part of the jacket in this silver version of the figure.

In Dalton 1927 it was stated that “the costume is that of officers of mines at Schemnitz”, but this is an unlikely solution. It seems to have been based on an imprecise description published in 1818 (in E. D. Clarke, ‘Travels, VIII’, p. 359), which stated that the miners' costume worn there consisted of “a jacket of grey cloth with gold epaulets, black pantaloons, a girdle of black leather with a gold clasp in front and a short black leather apron which is the most singular part, as it is not worn as an apron in front, but hangs behind”. Schemnitz is today the Czech town of Bānská Štiavnica (see Marc Rosenberg, ‘Der Goldschmiede Merkzeichen’, 3rd edn, Frankfurt, vol. IV, 1928, p. 591, R3 9364-7, for the town's silver assay marks), and the only recorded example in silver, which might be from this region, is unmarked and forms part of a centrepiece, now in the Hungarian National Museum, Budapest (inv. 65.4.c), where it is attributed to Kremnitz, c. 1734 (see Kolba 1991, p. 86, no. 50, col. pi. 38). This silver figure - also a caryatid but wearing an officer's hat - is standing motionless and is very different from the London figure, which may be compared with the strikingly similar figure of Harlequin modelled by J. J. Kandler in the late 1730s and produced at the Elector's Meissen porcelain factory near Dresden. In this model Kandler has the legs of Harlequin in an almost identical pose, with the raised left foot and leg pushing against a tree-stump, and again the contrapposto of the lithe torso is similar, even though the right arm is not raised in the caryatid gesture of the silver miner; both the inclination of the turned head and the slope of the left shoulder and arm are, however, repeated. This Harlequin Meissen figure, perhaps the most successful and popular of Kandler's models, seems to have been well known and greatly admired in the nineteenth century, and, indeed, one of the finest examples, bearing the date 1738 on the tankard in Harlequin's left hand, is still preserved in the Elector's Porcelain Collection in Dresden (see E. Zimmermann, ‘Meissner Porzellan’, Leipzig, 1926, col. pl. 39; R. Rückert, ‘Meissener Porzellan 1710-1810’, exh. cat., Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, 1966, no. 887, pl. 217). There would, therefore, have been no difficulty for Reinhold Vasters to have obtained access to a comparable version of Kandler's famous commedia dell'arte figure. Consequently, the suggestion that the silver figure may have been 'salvaged' by Reinhold Vasters from an earlier piece and that by cutting off the top of the head and adding the arched strip he was able to incorporate the figure into a new standing-cup shortly before 1872 has now been seriously weakened, even though it cannot yet be conclusively demonstrated that the figure was made in Vasters' own workshop.

Furthermore, a closer examination of the base has revealed that great technical ingenuity is allied to a strange error of style: a combination that is not infrequently associated with nineteenth-century fakers. The error occurs in the shape used for the base: the outline, derived from a Gothic quatrefoil, has been made asymmetrical and irregular in a manner that is inconsistent with German seventeenth- or eighteenth-century practice, especially among the leading goldsmiths. The technical ingenuity lies in the insertion of a lining of silver within the raised zone of chased rocks extending around the perimeter. This lining acts as a shallow tray, turned up at the edges and consequently retaining the soft resin-like pitch before it cooled and solidified around the crystals of smoky quartz. The 'rock-garden', with its crystals set at attractive angles to each other and its numerous silver-gilt plants and tiny creatures, is held together by this solidified glue-like substance and, skilfully, the rim of the lining has been disguised by converting it into a row of leaves that appears to merge with the taller plants inserted immediately behind. Even the tree-stump on to which the miner's foot is screwed has been partially obscured by the crystals and the plants so that the method of fastening is hidden from view. The tree-stump and the right foot of the miner are the only elements that had to be bolted through the double thickness of the lining and the base, although, uniquely, some of the larger silver-gilt plants were also threaded through the two layers. This base of glittering minerals (naturalia) is a most cleverly contrived composition, attractive from almost every angle, but the choice of a pseudo-Gothic outline for the base was an error of judgement - at least, in the long term. In the history of taste this standing-cup is, therefore, likely to become an increasingly important document, both for its mistakes and for its originality.


  • Franz Schestag, ‘katalog der Kuntsammlung des Freiherrn Anselm von Rothschild in Wein’, zweiter theil, Vienna, 1872, no. 565, with illus.
  • Charles Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 121, pl. XXIX
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 121
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. II. The Curiosities', British Museum, London, 1991, no.32, figs. 292-305
  • Dora Thornton, 'A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest', British Museum, London, 2015, p.26.
  • References

    1. Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
    2. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    3. Tait 1991a: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; III The 'Curiosities', London, BMP, 1991

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