WB.229     1640–60 • Amber, silver-gilt • tankard

The arms of the Swedish royal house of Vasa are set into the lid. The tankard probably belonged to the great collector Queen Christina of Sweden (reigned 1632–54). The panels around the body are carved with female figures representing the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Gluttony, Lechery, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Avarice.

Curator's Description

Cylindrical tankard; transparent reddish amber; carved in relief; mounted in silver-gilt, slightly enamelled; sides formed of nine slabs, each with figure emblematic of a vice: woman with peacock for Pride, another eating and drinking for Gluttony, also Lechery, Anger, Envy, Avarice and Sloth; two other panels of armed men; domed lid with busts and scrolls; ivory disc with arms of Sweden; reverse a woman with cup and ewer; handle in form of female terminal figure; foot with scrolls and mounts, lightly enamelled studs; bottom with sun with rays surrounded by scrolls.

This object was previously owned by Nostitz, and collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

14 cm wide, 20.5 cm high, 14 cm deep, and it weighs 660g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1991a:-

Origin: German; no silver punch-marks; probably Königsberg (East Prussia), mid-17th century.

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

Provenance: The presence of the coat of arms of the Swedish Royal House of Vasa (1521-1654), carved in white amber and set in the centre of the cover, is indicative that it may originally have belonged to Queen Christina of Sweden, who reigned from 1632 to 1654 and was the last Swedish monarch to bear this form of the royal coat of arms. After her abdication in 1654 Queen Christina took most of her large art collection to Rome, where she continued to regard herself as queen. Following her death in 1689 this great collection, including all the treasures seized during the storming of Prague by the Swedish army in 1648, was dispersed.

By the nineteenth century this tankard had entered the collection of Count Nostitz of Prague, and from that source, along with several other items, it was subsequently acquired by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild.

Commentary: In Dalton 1927 this tankard was dated “about 1600”, and consequently it was also categorically stated that it had “belonged to the Queen of Gustavus II (Adolphus) of Sweden”. She was the Prussian Princess Maria Eleanora (1599-1655), sister of the Elector of Brandenburg, who in 1620 came from Berlin to be married to Gustavus Adolphus and crowned Queen of Sweden. Twelve years later the King was killed at the Battle of Lützen in 1632, and thereafter his widow suffered from bouts of insanity. At first she lived for many years at Gripsholm Castle (on Lake Malaren, not far from Stockholm) against her will, while her daughter was brought up by her aunt; later she moved aimlessly from Denmark to Prussia and finally in 1648 returned to Sweden, where she died in 1655, the year after Queen Christina's abdication (see ‘Christina, Queen of Sweden and her epoch’, The 11th Council of Europe Art Exhibition, exh. cat., Stockholm, 1966).

As this amber tankard is now generally agreed to date, on stylistic grounds, from the middle decades of the century, between about 1640 and 1660 (see below for a further discussion), there is no longer any compelling reason to reassert the previous claim that it had belonged to Gustavus Adolphus's Queen. After 1632 it is most unlikely to have been made for the widowed Queen, and it is even more difficult to argue convincingly that this tankard could have been made as early as 1620-32 - or, indeed, at any time during the reign of Gustavus Adolphus (1611-32).

On the other hand, the last of the Vasa dynasty, Queen Christina, was an ardent collector, and an inventory of 1652 records that one part of her collection included 179 works of ivory, 20 of amber, 25 of coral, some 600 vessels of agate, rock-crystal and other hard stones, and over 400 East Indian curiosities. This Waddesdon Bequest tankard bears the coat of arms she used as Queen of Sweden and is undoubtedly the kind of Schatzkammer object she would have possessed, whether purchased on her own orders or received as a diplomatic gift.

Amber carving on the Baltic coast, particularly at Königsberg and Danzig, had reached the level of a sophisticated Court art in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; this is demonstrated, for example, by the set of eighteen silver and amber dishes of 1585, preserved in the Danish Royal Collections at Rosenborg

Castle (see Mogens Bencard, 'Märchenhafte Steine aus den Meer: Die Bernsteinsammlung der Kunstkammer in Schloss Rosenborg, Kopenhagen, ‘Kunst & Antiquitäten’, VI/1987, pp. 22-34, col. pl. 2; A. Rohde and U. Stöver, ‘Goldschmiedekunst in Königsberg’, Stuttgart, 1959, pl. 29) and, also, by the documented diplomatic gift of an amber casket to Osman II of Turkey by the Polish Duke Zbaraski in 1622 (J. Grabowska, ‘Polnischer Bernstein’, Warsaw, 1982, p. 20). However, after 1618 when the Duchy of Prussia and its separate Court at Königsberg were lost to the growing power of the Elector of Brandenburg, there was a marked increase in the number of prestigious commissions received from his Court in Berlin, which both fostered the traditional skills and attracted new artistic talent -Jacob Heise and Christoph Maucher being leading examples. A magnificent amber throne was presented to the Hapsburg Emperor, Leopold I, in 1677 (see W. Baer, Ein Bernsteinstuhl für Kaiser Leopold I; ein geschenk des Kurfürsten Friedrich Wilhelm von Brandenburg, ‘Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien’, Vol. 78, 1982, pp. 91-138, with illus.); while perhaps the grandest amber diplomatic gift of all time was an entire room of amber, taken from Frederick I of Prussia's Berlin palace and presented to Peter the Great of Russia; subsequently erected in the Summer Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, it remained for more than two hundred years - until its tragic loss during World War II - the crowning glory of the courtly art of amber carving during the baroque period.

The Waddesdon Bequest amber tankard and cover is also an exceptional piece - not because of its form, which is typical for the middle decades of the seventeenth century, but on account of its unusual carved decorative scheme. The Seven Deadly Sins - a rare iconographic subject at this date, especially for the decoration of a Schatzkammer object - are not only represented by standing emblematical figures (one male and six females) with their appropriate attributes, but also by the different animals and birds that accompany them and, furthermore, by the single appropriate animal selected for the smaller panel in the zone below. This iconographic scheme has its roots in medieval art and in the illustrations to popular bestiaries (allegorical poems), in which humans were satirised under the form of animals, birds and fishes - like the well-known story of Reynard the Fox, which was written in the thirteenth century, in both French and German, and was translated and printed by Caxton in 1481. However, the frequent portrayal of the Sins as animals in Western European medieval literature since the thirteenth century did not result in any consistent use of the symbolism in medieval and Renaissance art. As a result, each of the Sins was represented by a number of different animals; and, conversely, some animals would frequently be used (at different times and in different places) to represent more than one of the Seven Deadly Sins. On the Waddesdon Bequest tankard there are only two symbols that are used in a way that does not immediately appear to extend back into the medieval period: firstly, the grazing doe (beneath the figure of Sloth) and, secondly, the unicorn (beneath the figure of Lechery). The doe as a symbol of Lechery, however, is recorded in a medieval French manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, francais no. 400) and so may have been misused (to represent Sloth) at a later stage in Germany. On the other hand, the unicorn was so frequently associated with chastity in the medieval period that its use as a symbol for any of the vices might seem highly improbable. Nevertheless, in three different medieval texts the unicorn is recorded respectively as the symbol of Pride, of Anger and even of Avarice (see Morton W. Bloomfield, ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’, Michigan, 1952, p. 151, pp. 245-7). If this could happen in the medieval period, then the unicorn might indeed have become a symbol of Lechery by the late Renaissance.

Similar variations can be found in Renaissance art on either side of the Alps. Among the earliest North Italian engraved prints (about 1470-80), a large Venetian print depicts the Seven Deadly Sins as standing female figures, each of whom holds a shield with the appropriate animal symbol, its name inscribed underneath (A. M. Hind, ‘Early Italian Engraving. A critical catalogue . . .’, 7 vols, London, 1938-48, I, p. 250, no. 4; V, pp. 312-13; IV, pl. 397). Apart from two, these symbols differ significantly from the set of animal symbols that were used soon afterwards in Germany by one of the most influential artists of the early Renaissance north of the Alps, Peter Flötner (active in Nuremberg after 1522, died there in 1546). He produced, probably around 1540, a set of seven bronze plaquettes, each depicting a standing female winged figure emblematical of one of the Seven Deadly Sins and accompanied near her feet by the appropriate creature (I. Weber, ‘Deutsche, Niederländische und Franzsösische Renaissanceplaketten, 1500-1650’, Munich, 1975, pp. 73-5, no. 56, pl. 14). Because engravings and bronze plaquettes were produced in considerable quantities and could be widely circulated, their impact on other artists and craftsmen was often long-lasting and profound. Although there can be no suggestion that either the Venetian print or Peter Flötner's set of seven plaquettes was directly known to the carver of this amber tankard in Königsberg more than a century later, nevertheless, certain iconographic details are common to all three sets. Consequently it may be supposed that the source used by the amber carver was a near-contemporary set of German engravings of the Seven Deadly Sins, continuing in the same tradition but introducing various changes so that the symbolism conformed with the fashionable taste of Protestant Northern Germany during the second quarter of the seventeenth century.

In this context it is therefore necessary to refute a recent statement that one of these emblematical figures is the same as that used to represent a dancer on a contemporary Königsberg tankard that had ten amber panels, each with a single figure in contemporary costume either playing a musical instrument, singing or dancing (Majorie Trusted, Smart Lethieullier's Amber Tankard, ‘Apollo’, May 1985, p. 311, figs 2 and 5; Marjorie Trusted in ‘The Quiet Conquest, The Huguenots 1685 to 1985’, exh. cat., Museum of London, 1985, p. 156, no. 225, col. pl. and 2 figs). The tankard, hitherto unpublished, was stated to be owned by a descendant of the scholar, collector and antiquarian Smart Lethieullier (1701-60), a graduate of Oxford, Fellow of the Royal Society and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. He is said to be the first known owner of the tankard, although no single piece of evidence is offered in support of this remarkable provenance. In the 1985 exhibition catalogue (p. 156) it is claimed that “the dancer bearing a plumed fan (?) is identical with a figure on the tankard in the British Museum referred to above” and, in the ‘Apollo’ article, the two panels are illustrated (figs 2 and 5) but, misleadingly, the photograph of the Waddesdon Bequest tankard (fig. 5) has been reproduced in reverse, so that the figure of Pride appears, among other things, to be left-handed. A closer examination reveals that the two female figures are not the same, nor indeed are the dresses identical; furthermore, the single peacock feather held by the figure of Pride is not the same as the object held by the dancer; and, finally, the essential element in the representation of Pride, the peacock, is not included in the panel of the dancer on 'Smart Lethieullier's amber tankard'.

In conclusion, Pride and the dancer are not 'identical' and there is nothing to indicate that the source used by the carver of the Waddesdon Bequest tankard for his representation of Pride was also used by the carver of the Lethieullier tankard. The latter was almost certainly copying from a different engraving, even if he was employed in the same workshop, as has been suggested in the 1985 exhibition catalogue (p. 158).

Apart from the recently discovered Lethieullier tankard and an unusual, but poorly preserved, example (complete with its tooled leather case) that was recently sold in Geneva (Christie's, 9 May 1989, lot 171), twenty-four amber tankards were tracked down - mostly in the major Schatzkammer collections of Austria, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Sweden - and illustrated in Alfred Rohde's great survey of these Baltic amber carvings, published in 1937 (see Bibliography below). Half of them are of the earlier form - a narrower, more vertical and slender cylindrical shape - and do not have these large panels of emblematical figures. Indeed, the earliest dated example in this early group is signed by Georg Schreiber of Königsberg and bears the date 1617, with precious mounts by the goldsmith Joachim Wessel. Others in this earlier group are mounted by the Königsberg goldsmith Andreas Meyer (1608-47).

In the later group, to which the tankard in the Waddesdon Bequest belongs, only one piece bears a date; it has always been read as 1659, although the last digit is not clear. It is engraved on the rear panel (under the handle) of a tankard belonging to the parish church of North Mimms in Hertfordshire, which since 1901 has been deposited on loan to the British Museum (Rohde 1937, p. 74, no. 119, pl. 53). Unfortunately, the spreading foot and base have been repaired and altered; furthermore, the cover has lost its central inset medallion of white amber and there is no record of its original owner. Although far less finely carved than the Waddesdon Bequest tankard it is similar in general design, especially with its sequence of full-length emblematical figures representing the Virtues - a popular subject with the carvers of these amber tankards. However, it is significant that its proportions are less harmonious and that its handle no longer has the head carved fully in the round nor the graceful double S line but descends, in a single curve, almost to the base of the cylindrical body, before forming into a separate C-shaped terminal section. As a consequence, there is a different method of attaching the lower part of the handle to the tankard. If these changes represent an even later phase in the evolution of these amber tankards, then it may indicate that the Waddesdon Bequest tankard was made as early as the 1640s.

A similar comparison can be made in the Schatzkammer of the Munich Residenz, where there are two comparable tankards. The later and less finely carved example (Rohde 1937, p. 39, pl. 52, figs. 123-4; H. Brunner, ‘Schatzkammer der Residenz München’, 3rd edn of the Catalogue, Munich, 1970, p. 227, no. 528) is decorated on the lid with seated figures representing five of the Seven Deadly Sins and, on the cylindrical body, with the standing female figures of the Virtues; not only these figures but also the cartouches and the decorative patterns in relief on the panels above and below are very similar to those on the 1659 North Mimms tankard. On the other hand, the second and probably earlier tankard (Rohde 1937, p. 39, pl. 48, fig. 114; Brunner 1970, p. 227, no. 529) is strikingly well carved and in many respects resembles the Waddesdon Bequest tankard. Indeed, the convex panels on the foot are also carved with the same kinds of exotic birds perching on scrolling floral sprays terminating in large, but different, flowers. Although the source of the main decoration, consisting of full-length figures of musicians and dancers in the manner of Smart Lethieullier's tankard, has not been traced, they are depicted wearing contemporary costume, which, on the authority of Madeleine Ginsburg (Textile Department, Victoria and Albert Museum), have been described as “mid-seventeenth-century” (Marjorie Trusted, op. cit., ‘Apollo’, May 1985, pp. 310-11, no. 14). The high quality of this tankard in the Munich Residenz, like that of the Waddesdon Bequest tankard, points to a date of manufacture in the 1640s before the onset of the decline represented by the 1659 North Mimms tankard. Alternatively, it may be argued that these four tankards are all approximately contemporary but are the products of two different workshops, with the more talented workshop favouring the double S-shaped handle. Until some further documentary evidence comes to light, the precise chronology and authorship of these later tankards will continue to elude the historian.

The combined width of the panels representing the Seven Deadly Sins was not sufficiently great for the needs of the maker of the Waddesdon Bequest tankard and so he introduced two further panels, one on either side of the handle, each of which he carved with a helmeted warrior accoutred in the Roman style. These two figures, neither of which is accompanied by any symbolism, have adopted very commanding, if less bellicose, poses than their counterpart representing the Deadly Sin of Anger. Nevertheless, they are each associated (in the lower zone) with an animal and so, perhaps, the two warriors are emblematical of Power (the charging bull) and Pillage (the Monkey's hoard). Both these panels would have been carved in the shadow of the Thirty Years' War, when Swedish forces under Gustavus Adolphus had successfully captured Riga and Mitau and the Baltic lands of Livonia to the north-east of Königsberg. Equally, the reputation of the victorious Swedish armies for pillaging on a grand scale was unrivalled, for in Gustavus Adolphus' reign Stockholm acquired, for example, the splendid armoury of the Dukes of Courland, and the famous library from Würzburg; later, in 1648, the paintings, books and Schatzkammer objects seized from Prague were to be installed in Queen Christina's palace, the Three Crowns Castle, in the centre of the city. The booty of war had rarely transformed a nation's capital so swiftly and, although still approved of by some, these years of military conquests and plundering were, by the middle of the century, to tarnish Sweden's reputation. Contemporary amber tankards glorifying the martial arts and military prowess are rare, though two well-documented and early examples (about 1620-40) have survived among the Hapsburg Imperial Treasures in Vienna (Inv. no. 3548 and 3551; R. Bauer in ‘Führer durch die Sammlungen’, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1988, p. 198, with col. pl.; Rohde 1937, p. 74, pl. 43, figs 106 and 107). The earlier of the two, with its slender vertical form (H. 23 cm) and its colourfully enamelled silver-gilt mounts, has alternating panels of military trophies and full-length figures of classical heroes, often in military attire. However, a more purely military scheme of decoration is found on the later example, which in its proportions and its emphasis on the horizontal lines is more akin to the Waddesdon Bequest tankard (and the several associated examples). Indeed, its full-length helmeted warriors in Roman-style armour are more obviously related to the later - and especially to the more sophisticated - pair of warriors on either side of the handle of the Waddesdon Bequest tankard. Even the amber mermaid set in the handle of the Vienna tankard seems to be the forerunner of the fashion that appears to have become de rigueur by the middle decades of the century.

The proposition that this pair of helmeted warriors accompanying the set of panels representing the Seven Deadly Sins may have a greater significance than mere nondescript military figures - as on the later of the two Vienna tankards - is supported by the choice of subject for the carving set in the centre of the interior of the cover. It does not represent Temperance - a subject that is most appropriately to be found, for example, in the corresponding position on 'Smart Lethieullier's Amber Tankard' (M. Trusted, op. cit, ‘Apollo’, May 1985, p. 310, fig. 4), where the white amber carving depicts a slim, fully clad, fashionably dressed female pouring from a ewer into a goblet in a very similar pose. In contrast the semi-nude, almost Rubenesque, figure in the cover of the Waddesdon Bequest tankard was quite unequivocally chosen in order to maintain, within the interior, the general theme of the Seven Deadly Sins; this small but dominant carving, so expressive of the vices of Drunkenness, Adultery and Fornication, is an integral part of the iconography of this tankard. To describe this carving simply as “the bust of a woman carousing” (M. Trusted, ‘Catalogue of European Ambers in the Victoria and Albert Museum’, London, 1985, p. 43, n. 2, where it is incorrectly stated to be set in the lid of a tankard dated 1659) and, furthermore, to compare it with a pierced white amber relief of “quarter-length profiles of a man and woman gazing at each other, the man holding a goblet” in the base of a two-handled bowl in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Inv. no. A 9-1950), is to disregard the thematic context of this Seven Deadly Sins tankard.

Heraldic coats of arms, especially with the more complicated quarterings, present a testing challenge for the carver of amber when working on a miniature scale. Traditionally, medieval and Renaissance silver and gold vessels would frequently be set in this way with an engraved and enamelled metal disc bearing the owner's arms. In emulation, the amber carver occasionally attempted the formidable task in white amber; there is, for example, a covered bowl in the Munich Residenz that is set with the arms of Poland and, in escutcheon, the arms of the Vasa (for Sigismund III of Poland (1587-1632) who was also King of Sweden (from 1592 until he was deposed in 1599); this piece is recorded in the Schatzkammer Inventory of 1783 (Brunner 1970, p. 224, no. 522). On the Waddesdon Bequest tankard the carver has to a large degree succeeded, although the crowned lions rampant may not be as perfectly formed or as fully endowed with thick manes as normal, but the inclusion of so many essential heraldic details within this tiny area testifies to the exceptional skill of the carver and the high standards achieved under the princely patronage of the North German and Baltic courts. The former practice of attributing works of this quality and date to the workshop of Jacob Heise of Königsberg, who died in 1667, is probably correct. He left a beautiful shell-shaped standing-cup, signed and dated 1659, which is preserved in the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden (J.L. Sponsel, ‘Das Grüne Gewölbe zu Dresden’, vol. IV, Leipzig, 1932, p. 140, pl. 50, b; Rohde 1937, p. 41, figs 132-3). It is a work of the highest virtuosity and Mannerist elegance, and it may be deduced that his atelier was also producing works like this amber tankard of the Seven Deadly Sins, though in the absence of confirmatory evidence the attribution must remain tentative.

[For other comparisons see a similar tankard by Georg Schreiber workshop, Nuremberg, 17th C in the Museo degli Argenti: see Mosco and Casazza, Museo degli Argenti, 2004, p. 102, fig. 6; Another amber tankard attributed to Jacob Heise of Konigsberg, 1650-60 is in the Lauer collection, Munich.]


  • 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. 229
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 229
  • Alfred Rohde, ‘Bernstein: ein Deutscher Werkstoff’, Berlin, 1937, p. 74, pl. 50, fig. 121
  • Hugh Tait, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: The Legacy of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild to the British Museum’, London, 1981, p. 91, col. pl. XVIA-B
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 3, The "Curiosities"', British Museum, London, 1991, no.12, figs.163-173.
  • 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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