The Turkish siege beaker

WB.96     1530–40 • Silver-gilt • goblet

The outer layer of this double-walled beaker is worked in high relief. It shows a perspective view of Turkish forces laying siege to a European fortified city, as happened with Vienna in 1529 and Güns (Köszeg, Hungary) in 1532. In the foreground horsemen are seen from behind as they look into the scene, creating a sense of depth.

Curator's Description

Cylindrical goblet; silver-gilt; embossed and chased; rounded base resting on three lions' heads, between which are three bearded heads within wreaths; upper part in low relief with siege of fortified city; in foreground are groups of horsemen wearing turbans, some in high relief; Biblical scenes on base, destruction of Pharaoh's host, Golden Calf etc; inscribed.; plain silver lining, upper edge forming edge of goblet and engraved with floral scrolls; subject may be siege of Vienna by Turks in 1529; inscribed.

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

How big is it?

11.5 cm wide, 20.8 cm high, 11.5 cm deep, and it weighs 925g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1988:-

Origin: Flemish or German (?); c. 1530-40; mark of the city of Nuremberg (on the gilt rim of the silver lining); no maker's mark.

Mark: Assay mark for Nuremberg, 1600-1700 (R3 3762). N.B. No marks have been struck on the outer wall of this object.

Provenance: None is recorded.

Commentary: In the late medieval and early Renaissance periods, the marking of silver plate was far less well organised and efficiently enforced in the German-speaking areas of Europe than in England, France and the Low Countries. Even in the two major centres of the craft - Nuremberg and Augsburg - the introduction of a regular system of assaying and marking came quite late: in Augsburg, the town-mark (a pine cone) was introduced in 1529 and had to be accompanied by a maker's punch-mark, but it was only in 1541 that the city of Nuremberg required the goldsmith to stamp his own mark beside the 'N' of the town-mark. In neither city - nor, indeed, in the other Germanic centres (such as Frankfurt, Strasburg, Hamburg, Kassel, Vienna and Dresden) - were date-letters ever punched alongside the town-mark; consequently, in the absence of such a system, there is no way of establishing from the punch-marks the precise year of manufacture of the silver. However, a slight variation in the form of the town-mark is often a good indication of the date-bracket within which that particular punch was in use and, therefore, the likely period of manufacture.

The ironical situation for the historian of the craft in Nuremberg during the sixteenth century is that whereas, according to the town's records, there were twice as many goldsmiths working in Nuremberg in the first quarter than in the last quarter of the century, there are extant today infinitely fewer secular pieces of Nuremberg silver from the early decades - and particularly, from the crucial transitional period of twenty-five years, 1520-45 - than there are from the later decades. However, the output of the Nuremberg goldsmiths before the arrival of Wenzel Jamnitzer in their ranks in 1534 must have been very considerable since they numbered well over a hundred, and undoubtedly included many talented craftsmen (see H. Kohlhaussen, ‘Nürnberger Goldschmiedekunst des Mittelalters und der Dürerzeit 1240-1540’, Berlin, 1968 and J. M. Fritz, ‘Goldschmiedekunst der Gothik in Mitteleuropa’, Munich 1982). Nevertheless, there is a lacuna during the first four decades of the sixteenth century, as was vividly demonstrated by the 1985 Special Exhibition in Nuremberg (‘Wenzel Jamnitzer’ 1985, pp. 210-17, nos 3-13), and it is within this ill-documented and uncertain phase before 1545 that this Turkish siege goblet would appear to belong. Indeed, the anonymous Renaissance goldsmith who made this extraordinary goblet has most recently been christened 'The Nuremberg Master' (see Hayward 1976, pp. 101-2, pls 281-2, 288-8a).

Four outstandingly fine works are attributed to this gifted unknown craftsman, whose skill at embossing figure subjects in exceptionally high relief is instantly recognisable. Of the four, the piece that is the closest to this London Turkish siege goblet is the uniquely shaped silver-gilt standing cup and cover (with its thistle-shaped bowl), long preserved in the Schatzkammer of the Deutsches Ritter Orden in Vienna. Not only is this covered cup dated 1536, but the rather crudely engraved legends refer to the Emperor Charles V (reigned 1519-55); furthermore, his most important victory over the French, at Pavia in 1525, when Francois I was taken prisoner, is depicted in the crowded reliefs - on the high, drum-shaped foot and on the convex band and the upper zones of the thistle-shaped bowl. The low relief on the cylindrical drum of the tall foot is quite classical in inspiration although wholly Renaissance in costume and subject, but the friezes on the bowl are more daring, particularly in the uppermost zone where a bold attempt to represent the scene in realistic perspective has led the goldsmith to create the horses and their riders in such high relief that their heads, legs and rumps are almost in the round. The horses stand on a narrow 'ledge' or foreground, and the effect of distance is created by the dense crowd in lower relief behind them and the receding landscape with buildings and hills leading to the horizon. The effect is only slightly less dramatic than on the London example, perhaps because the landscape, which occupies less space, forms more of a backcloth to the scene of action in the foreground. Every particle of every surface is decorated, except the narrow strip where the cover clips over the rim: the cover, with its late Gothic-style, flat-topped finial bearing the Emperor's head, is restlessly embossed and chased, while the stem and knop are enriched with seated emblematical figures separated by applied dolphins (?) and, above, projecting heads amidst scrolling foliage. Traditionally, this dated and imposing document (H. 48 cm), which commemorates the victorious campaigns of Charles V in Italy, is said to have been a gift from the Emperor to the Grand Master of the Order.

The second piece in this group of four most recently attributed to the 'Nuremberg Master' has, like the 1536 covered cup in Vienna, a well-documented history, having been preserved in the dynastic Schatzkammer of the Dukes of Württemberg, and now in the Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart (see Mechthild Landenberger, ‘Kleinodien aus dem Württembergischen Landesmuseum’, Stuttgart, Pfullingen, 1973, no. 14, with illus.; also Hayward 1976, p. 364, pls 288-8a). Although slightly less dramatically embossed in high relief, this Württemberg silver-gilt covered cup (H. 28.5 cm) is very obviously by the same hand as the London Turkish siege goblet. The entire surface is embossed and chased with scenes of the Emperor Charles V's victorious campaigns in Tunis against the forces of Solyman the Magnificent, the Turkish Sultan, during the summer of 1535, when the Emperor laid siege to La Goletta, the fort guarding Tunis. The siege, conducted in sweltering heat, lasted for a month before the fortress surrendered and the hitherto invincible Chaireddin Barbarossa, Commander-in-Chief of the entire Turkish marine forces, was at last humbled. The siege is depicted in a manner that is almost identical to the relief on the London goblet, and many of the details of skirmishes are almost the same. The cover, which is again of that distinctive Northern late Gothic form, is exuberantly embossed and the upper surface of its finial is inset with a relief of the head of St John the Baptist on a charger held by Salome. Inside the cover, a flat disc hides the embossed work of the cover and depicts in high relief the armour-clad Emperor Charles V on horseback trampling on his enemies, who are represented heraldically - the crescent (of the Turks), the Lion of St Mark (of the Venetians), the six balls (of the Medici in Florence), the cock (of the French), the cross of St George (perhaps of England?), and finally the figure of the Pope himself. This combination of enemies existed as a formidable - if undeclared - alliance against Charles V in the early 1530s. It was particularly strong in 1533-4, when the French king, Francois I, entered into negotiations with the Turks, especially Chaireddin Barbarossa, whose ambassadors he received in the autumn of 1533, just at the time when he was laying claim to Alessandria, Asti and Genoa and preparing to wrest them from the Emperor. Furthermore, at that moment the Pope was a Medici - Clement VII - and, having married his niece, Catherine de' Medici, to the Duke of Orleans, was supporting the French interests, even though he publicly censured the French relationship with the Turks. The plans worked out by Francois I and the Pope in November 1533 at a meeting in Marseilles were aborted when, on 25 September 1534, Clement VII died and was succeeded by a Farnese, whose family had more to gain from supporting the Emperor. It was not until late 1537 that Venice considered entering into an alliance with the Pope and the Emperor against Solyman the Magnificent, who in August 1537 had devastated the Venetian-held island of Corfu and laid siege to its great fortress. Consequently, the Württemberg covered cup has a programme of decoration that fits perfectly with the suggested date of manufacture in the mid-1530s; indeed, its curious and unparalleled form, a halfway stage between the late Gothic and the Renaissance styles, is equally explicable in the context of northern European taste in the mid-1530s. The tall, cylindrical body may have originally continued higher with a rim (now lost) around the upper border of the bowl - hidden in the illustration by the overhang of the cover - and so have had a similar method of construction to the London Turkish siege goblet. Like the London goblet, the Württemberg covered cup has a convex zone (at the base of the straight cylindrical body) but, in addition, it has a short, spreading, conical foot, both ornamented with battle friezes in relief.

The last piece, recently attributed (Hayward 1976, p. 364, pls 281-2) to the same workshop in Nuremberg in the early 1530s, is the very puzzling silver-gilt secular double-cup (total H. 33 cm) with Old and New Testament subjects, formerly in the William Randolph Hearst Collection, USA, and now preserved (since 1964) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (see Ernst Schuselka in ‘Kalalog der Sammlung für Plastik und Kunstgewerbe: II, Renaissance’, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1966, p. 55, no. 278, fig. 50). The shape and form of decoration are again of a transitional character, with the skilful embossing in very high relief being a major feature and leaving virtually no surface - apart from the heavily moulded foot-rims - undecorated. The two bowls of the cups are each embossed with eight roundels, each containing a bust of a man: on one cup, eight Apostles, and on the other cup, eight worthies, partly kings and other characters from the Old Testament, each identified by the inscription in Roman lettering around the edge of the roundel:



The use of the word 'KING' and the spelling of certain names is puzzling, indeed.

Above the frames of the roundels and below the projecting flange is an embossed Italianate Renaissance band of ornament comprising a ram's head and a flowing scroll (on either side). Above the flange is the broad band of the rim of each cup, the one fitting inside the other to form a double-cup (‘Doppelscheuer’); both broad bands are delicately engraved with a running floral and foliate scroll in the Renaissance style - very similar to the engraved decoration on the rim of the London Turkish siege goblet, which is stamped with the Nuremberg town-mark.

The knop, immediately below the bowl on each cup, has four projecting heads - very similar to those on the 1536 covered cup in the Schatzkammer of the Deutsches Ritter Orden in Vienna. The chalice-like spreading stem (beneath the knop) gently curving out to the high moulded foot-rims is wholly late medieval in character with its embossed figure scenes depicting the birth of Christ on the one and the Adoration of the Magi on the other, though in some of the details the transitional influence of the Italian Renaissance can be detected. Beneath the foot of each cup is set a large roundel, richly embossed and chased in high relief, with the Crucifixion on the one and the Last Judgement and Resurrection of the Dead on the other. In the latter, the bearded head of Christ in Majesty (seated with his feet on the terrestrial globe) is almost identical with the noble classical head in one of the three roundels on the base of the London Turkish siege goblet. These two reliefs have been protected under the feet of this double-cup and are remarkably well preserved; they vividly demonstrate this unknown goldsmith's talent for embossing crowded scenes within a very restricted area.

None of these four pieces is marked by the maker but, if they can all be attributed to the one goldsmith and can be dated to the 1530s, it is now important to reconsider whether the Waddesdon Bequest goblet commemorates one of the major contemporary victories over the Turkish forces during a siege of a European city defended by the forces loyal to Charles V. There were two notable occasions: one in 1529 and the other in 1532. From the moment that Solyman the Magnificent (reigned 1520-66) came to power, his forces drove into Europe, seizing Belgrade in 1521, defeating the Hungarian forces under King Louis, the last of the Jagiello line, on the marshy plains of Mohács in 1526, capturing Buda in 1528 and there crowning his vassal, John Zápolyai, with the crown of St Stephen, until finally in 1529 he laid siege to Vienna itself. After a month of more than twenty major onslaughts on the city the siege was raised and Solyman's forces retreated. The immediate jubilation was deafening; however, there was no great sense of victory since the Turkish menace remained undiminished and in total control of most of Hungary and the Balkans, so the scene on the London goblet may not depict the siege of Vienna in 1529 (as suggested in Read 1902, p. 46). Furthermore, there is no prominent building engraved within the city walls on the London goblet that is immediately recognisable as one of the great medieval monuments of Vienna, though it has to be remembered that the spire of St Stephen's Cathedral was not built on top of the mid-fifteenth-century North Tower (or Adler Tower) until 1578 and, it may be argued, the very large church near one of the gateways is intended to represent - albeit inadequately - the Cathedral. Indeed, similar buildings appear to be represented in the foreground of the well-known ‘Siege of Vienna’ woodcut of 1530 by Niclas (Nicholas) Meldeman, the wood-engraver and publisher of Nuremberg (active c. 1520-50); however, as the flat panoramic view is seen from within the city walls looking out towards the tents and cavalry of the besieging Turkish forces, comparisons are difficult. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Meldeman's woodcut also depicts groups of camels in the Turkish camp and even includes small written 'captions' within the landscape to identify significant aspects of the scene, but the writing is not always distinct or well placed. Consequently, a goldsmith copying from a woodcut of this type might easily have misread one of these tiny 'captions' and so, very confusingly, have engraved the large Turkish tent with the word ZALMEST - if, indeed, that is the correct transcription. At present, the meaning and significance of this word have eluded the specialists in this field. (For a useful, enlarged detail of the 1530 woodcut by Niclas Meldeman, see Stefan Nebhay, Ein Spätmittelalterlicher Bodenfund aus Wien, ‘Mitteilungen der Kommission für Burgenforschung und Mitlelalter-Archaeölogie’, no. 22, Vienna, 1978, pl. 9; see also K. Weiss, ‘Niclas Meldeman's Rundansicht der Stadt Wien währendder Turkenbelagerung im 1529’, Vienna, 1863.)

If the scene on the London goblet is not the 1529 siege of Vienna by the Turks, then there is the strong possibility that it represents the heroic resistance of the town of Güns in 1532, after which the Sultan himself was forced to lead the retreat and, with the main body of his army, returned humiliated to Constantinople, having been prevented from laying siege to Vienna, let alone capturing it from Charles V. Such a great victory could justly be celebrated throughout the Hapsburg dominions, and among the contemporary Nuremberg woodcuts in the British Museum there is, for example, one anonymous view (25.1 x 114.3 cm) of the Turkish army, with a crowned Solyman seated on a horse-drawn canopied throne, retreating from the walls of Güns, which are depicted (and 'captioned') in the right-hand background of the woodcut. Purchased in 1849, this woodcut was included in Campbell Dodgson, ‘Catalogue of Early German and Flemish Woodcuts in the British Museum’ (London, 1911, repr. 1980, p. 493, no. 3), where it is dated 1532, and the printed title of the woodcut has been transcribed as follows: “Ein Klag zu Gott, uber die grausamliche manigfaltigen wüterey, desz Blutdirstigen Türcken umb gnedige hilff.” The Turkish defeat was all the more humiliating on that occasion because Solyman had made gigantic preparations to capture Vienna and had set out from Constantinople with an army of 200,000 men in May 1532; at Belgrade he was joined by 15,000 Tartars from the Crimea, and at Essek he was reinforced by 100,000 troops from Bosnia. No resistance was made to his mighty hordes until they reached Güns on 9 August; there the small garrison under Nicholas Jurischitz held out for three weeks, even successfully defending a large breach in the walls and winning the admiration of the Turks for their bravery. The Turks, forced to abandon their plans, made peace and presented the town and castle of Güns to Jurischitz with a robe of honour - reminiscent of the Third Crusade when Richard the Lionheart knighted a kinsman of the Sultan Saladin for his bravery and heroic feats in battle. The checking of the Turkish supreme effort at Güns was a truly major historical event because, although Charles V had made concessions to the German Protestants and in return had received a levy of 25,000 men to defend Vienna, his combined resources were by no means capable of guaranteeing the safety of Vienna against a second Turkish siege within three years. Furthermore, the success at Güns opened up a future basis for diplomatic negotiations with the Sultan and, combined with subsequent successes in the Mediterranean, postponed the return of the Turkish armies to the gates of Vienna for over one hundred years. Consequently, silver plate at the court of Charles V might, indeed, be fashioned to commemorate so significant a victory.

Only one of these four distinctive pieces of silver plate bears a punch-mark - the stamp of Nuremberg which, unfortunately, does not occur on the repoussé silver-gilt exterior but on the rim of the silver liner of the goblet in the Waddesdon Bequest. Consequently, it can be argued that the liner was, indeed, made in Nuremberg at a slightly later date and added to the Turkish siege goblet which had been made elsewhere but was, subsequently, brought to Nuremberg. This complicated argument has been advanced by those who adhere to the alternative proposition which would attribute a Flemish origin to all four items. Not only was Flanders the country where Charles V grew up but it was also one of the richest parts of his Empire, and Antwerp at this time held one of the greatest concentrations of skill in the field of goldsmiths' work. Furthermore, Charles V's attempts to levy heavy taxes in Flanders for the war against the Turks had led to tension: in 1534 a Prelates Confederation was established by Arnoldus de Dyest, Abbot of Tongerlo, to oppose this taxation, even though it was for a kind of crusade against the Infidel (see Hugh Tait, The girdle-prayerbook or “tablet, ‘Jewellery Studies’, II, Society of Jewellery Historians, 1985, pp. 43-4). Consequently, there might have been some special reason for this group to have a Flemish origin - perhaps commissioned by a patron among the supporters of Charles V at the Brussels Court of Mary of Hungary (1505-58), who was not only Charles V's sister but between 1531 and 1555 was ruling as the 'Queen-Governess' of the Netherlands.

The lack of comparative material of this date from Antwerp makes the attribution difficult to sustain - or, indeed, to refute. Among the very few related pieces of plate to have survived is the outstandingly fine, embossed standing cup and cover, bearing Antwerp marks of about 1525, preserved in the Schatzkammer of the Residenz in Munich (H. Brunner, ‘Schatzkammer der Residenz München’, 3rd edn of the Catalogue, Munich, 1970, p. 60, no. 37; also Hans Thoma, ‘Kronen un Kleinodien’, Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1955, p. 22, pls 24-5, with excellent detailed photograph of the embossed scene on the bowl). The unidentified goldsmith of this great cup (H. 48.5 cm; DIAM. 21 cm) has depicted a procession of native Indians from the New World celebrating in an exotic landscape and, though there is even greater mastery of the frieze-like composition, there is no stylistic connection between it and the treatment of the scenes on the group of four associated with Charles V and the 1530s.

Similarly, there are few stylistic links between this little group and the three surviving pieces of historic Antwerp silver of the period 1548-58, each decorated with military scenes. The earliest of the three is the standing cup that was presented in 1551 by Maximilian of Burgundy, first Marquis of Veere, to the Dutch town of Veere, where it is still preserved (see J. Destree, La Coupe de la Ville de Veere de 1546, ‘Oud-Holland’, 1932, XLIX, pp. 97-113, figs 1-5). The events commemorated in low relief on the bowl of the cup, with an accompanying inscription, were contributory to yet another of Charles V’s successes; the imperial army, waiting at Ingolstadt, had been joined on 15 September 1546 by a large body of reinforcements under the command of Maximilian of Egmont, Count of Buren - a cousin of the Marquis of Veere. The brilliance with which he negotiated the difficult crossing of the Rhine with so large a force, and their reception by the Emperor, are recorded on the cup; according to tradition it was a gift from Charles V to the Count, but as it is not marked it can only be dated between 1547 and 1551. In certain technical and stylistic respects, the embossing and chasing of this Veere standing cup is not dissimilar to that covering the Louvre's famous and much grander Antwerp ewer and basin (DIAM. 64.5 cm), marked with the date-letter for 1558-9 and the unidentified maker's mark PR in monogram (Musée du Louvre; see A. Darcel, ‘Notice des Émaux et d'Orfèvrerie’, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1891, pp. 486-8, inv. no. M.R. 341 and 351 ('ancienne collection'); Joseph Destrée, L'aiguière et le plat de Charles-Quint, ‘Annales de la Société d' Archéologie de Bruxelles’, XIV, 1900, pp. 33-59; also Hayward 1976, p. 396, pls 596-7). This extraordinary ewer and basin were first inventoried in 1793, at the opening of the Louvre, and listed among the objects displayed in the Galerie d'Apollon. It was further recorded that they had been seized during the French Revolution at the home of Madame de Brionne, her château being near Paris in the commune d'Arpajou. Her son, Prince de Lambesc, is thought to have given them to Madame de Brionne while he was a colonel of a foreign regiment in the service of France and, consequently, might have received them either from the Court in Vienna or from the Dauphine Marie-Antoinette. This hypothesis, even if it were ever capable of proof, would, however, leave the history of the ewer and basin prior to 1793 in total obscurity. The decoration, with scenes of the Emperor's triumphal expedition to Tunis in 1535, was completed three years after Charles V's abdication at Brussels, and is unlikely to have been ordered by the Emperor during his years of retirement in the monastery at Yusti in Spain, where he died on 21 September 1558. The reason for this grandiose commission, twenty-three years after the event, is an unsolved puzzle. The Tunis Campaign, though important at the time, had no lasting effects, and by 1558 would have been largely forgotten, except presumably by the Hapsburg dynasty and their courts. Consequently, the ewer and basin represent - along with the Veere standing cup - the best Antwerp craftsmanship in this particular field of commemorative military decoration during the decade 1548-58, and undoubtedly there are no grounds for associating them with the so-called Nuremberg group of the 1530s. Without some evidence to link this latter group with the known styles of the Flemish goldsmiths in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, there is no reason to reject the evidence of the Nuremberg town-mark on the London goblet.

It is, as yet, impossible to prove any connection between this goldsmith's highly distinctive method of depicting the scene of the siege, especially the horses and men in the foreground, and the very similar solutions found in Pisanello's fresco of St George in the church of St Anastasia in Verona (executed about a hundred years earlier, in 1438). There were, of course, close trading and cultural connections between Nuremberg and northern Italy throughout this period and, indeed, some goldsmiths from northern Italy settled in Nuremberg, becoming masters of the Guild and registering their marks. (For a discussion of the Verona fresco and Pisanello's preparatory drawings preserved in the Albertina, Vienna, see A. de Hevesy, Zur Pariser Pisanello Ausstellung, ‘Pantheon’, May 1932, V, pp. 145-50, with illus.). It may be no more than a coincidence that Pisanello's fresco has many of the same compositional elements, not least the horses seen head-on or directly from behind, the cunningly 'hidden' middle distance and the steeply rising landscape with the towers of a city silhouetted against the sky in the background. Nevertheless, Pisanello's solution at Verona may have played some part, direct or indirect, in influencing the anonymous goldsmith and leading him to choose this challenging solution to his exacting commissions for silver-gilt vessels that glorified the Emperor Charles V as a victorious ruler, especially against the traditional enemy of Christendom, the Turkish Infidel.


  • 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. 96
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 96
  • J. F. Hayward, ‘Virtuoso Goldsmiths and the Triumphs of Mannerism 1540-1620’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, 1976, pp. 101-2
  • Hugh Tait 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 2, The silver plate', British Museum, London, 1988, no.96, pl.IV, figs.16-23.
  • 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 1988: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; II The Silver Plate, London, BMP, 1988

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