Plate with story of Samson

WB.99     1850–72 • Silver-gilt • plateau

Curator's Description

Circular plateau on foot; silver-gilt; embossed and chased in high relief; centre, combat of horsemen; edges with six scenes from life of Samson, divided by winged terminal figures.

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

How big is it?

30.5 cm wide, 6.4 cm high, 30.5 cm deep, and it weighs 1.4 kg

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1988:-

Origin: Uncertain; no marks; previously attributed to a German, Spanish or Portuguese workshop in second half of 16th century, but more probably made in Paris (?) in mid-19th century.

Marks: None.

Provenance: Baron Anselm von Rothschild, Vienna, between 1866 and 1872 (cat no. 531), by inheritance to his son Baron Ferdinand Rothschild (d. 1898). Hitherto it has been mistaken for the example ‘from the Seillière and Spitzer Collections’, sold in 1890 and 1893.

Commentary: In Baron Anselm's day it was catalogued (and illustrated) by Franz Schestag as “Spanishe Arbeit des 16. Jahrhunderts”, but in Read 1902 and Dalton 1927 this 'plateau' was described unequivocably as “German, late 16th century”. This attribution was all the more curious because in Read 1902 it was said to have come “from the Seillière and Spitzer Collections”, and yet in the Paris sale catalogue of the Spitzer Collection (17 April-16 June 1893) the very similar silver-gilt 'plateau' was described as “travail portugais, xvie siècle” (lot 1782, p. 41). Indeed, as the Spitzer Collection sale catalogue entry (lot 1782) also stated that that 'plateau' had come from the “ancienne collection Seillière”, it was most probably Read's source of information.

Not only did Read not know that Baron Ferdinand's 'plateau' had already joined Baron Anselm's collection in Vienna before 1872 and could therefore not be the same object as the one sold from the Spitzer Collection in 1893, but Read cannot have consulted volume III of ‘La Collection Spitzer’ (Paris, 1891), p. 30, no. 81, where the slightly fuller description concluded with the following sentence: “Sur le piédouche sont repoussés des scènes de chasse et des trophées.” Although there is no illustration of the piece in the 1891 publication, it is irrefutable that the description of the stem and foot does not correspond with the object in Baron Ferdinand's Bequest. Unfortunately, the small illustration in the 1893 sale catalogue of the Spitzer Collection shows only the upper surface of the dish with its scenes from the story of Samson and the equestrian battle scene in the central roundel. Furthermore, a thorough search through the sale catalogue of the Seillière Collection, Paris (Petit) 5-10 May 1890, has revealed that this 'plateau' was not among the silver plate that was to be auctioned. Consequently, if Paul Chevallier and Charles Mannheim ('expert'), who were jointly responsible for both the Seillière Collection and Spitzer Collection sale catalogues, were correct in stating that the 'plateau' had come from the Seillière Collection, then it must have been acquired by Frederic Spitzer (1815-90) direct from Baron Achille de Seillière. However, it is perhaps significant that no provenance was given for this 'plateau' when it was first published in 1891 (‘La Collection Spitzer’, vol. III, p. 30, no. 81) as part of that great de luxe six-volume work (1890-2) which was entirely planned by Frederic Spitzer himself, but of which he lived to see only the first volume.

During a study visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, by the author in 1970, the missing Spitzer Collection 'plateau' was identified among the vast gift of J. Pierpont Morgan in 1917 (reg. no. 17.190.603). Although there was no record of its earlier history nor any mention of it having come from the Spitzer Collection, it seemed highly probable that it was one and the same, especially as the stem and foot corresponded with the 1891 description.

Any lingering doubts were resolved when a detailed comparison of the figure scenes on the two 'plateaux' in London and New York was carried out; it was established that, although essentially the same in all the major compositional elements, each of the scenes differed in some significant respect:

(i) Samson with the jaw-bone of an ass: this scene on the New York version has an additional horse and rider, with heart-shaped shield, in the foreground - apparently almost ploughing into the ground. Three of the Philistines are depicted wearing swords; the shield with mask carried by the equestrian figure (at the rear) is almost cartouche-shaped - quite unlike any on the Waddesdon version. Finally, the soldiers are arranged differently and the foot-soldier on the extreme left of the Waddesdon scene has been entirely omitted.

(ii) Delilah bribed by the Philistine lords: in this scene, the two principal figures are closer together on the New York version and the group of soldiers behind (and to the left of) Delilah are different. On the extreme right, the second equestrian figure has been omitted and the remaining horse and rider are not shown galloping, as on the Waddesdon version. A sword is, again, worn by the chief Philistine lord and the billowing drapery is less exaggerated on the New York example.

(iii) Samson tricking Delilah for the third time: in this scene the compositional elements remain similar throughout, but whereas the little helmeted soldier tugging at Samson's cloak is given prominence on the Waddesdon example, on the New York version he is bare-headed and half-hidden behind the tall Philistine wearing a sword. Furthermore, on the New York version Samson is shown naked, except for his billowing cloak, and (to the left) on the ground above the jaw-bone is a classical-style helmet.

(iv) Delilah cutting Samson's hair: in this scene, the main difference on the New York version is the lack of distance between the Philistines and the two principal figures, especially as a result of introducing a tall Philistine (wearing a sword) just at Samson's feet. He is apparently remonstrating with the rider (extreme right) who is brandishing a short, curved sword - very different from the two galloping equestrian figures on the Waddesdon version.

(v) Samson blinded by the Philistines: in this scene, Samson is depicted on the New York version as naked except for a piece of billowing drapery; the two Philistines on either side of Samson wear swords, and the single equestrian figure (on the extreme right) is ambitiously shown from the rear and only partially in profile. The group of soldiers standing on the left are different on the two versions.

(vi) Samson destroys the Philistines: in this scene, the building (on the New York version) is partly lost behind the winged term and the scene inside is so cramped that fewer Philistines are represented. The child behind Samson is represented even smaller on the New York 'plateau', but is overshadowed by the introduction of an additional bearded man with moustache talking to the group of soldiers, one of whom carries a sword. Finally, the two sets of six terms separating the scenes and the two central roundels exhibit a similar series of minor differences, including changes to the landscape in the background. Fortunately, the small illustration in the 1893 sale catalogue of the Spitzer Collection is sufficiently distinct to enable detailed comparison to be made with the scenes on the two 'plateaux' and to confirm that the Spitzer photograph corresponds in every discernible detail with the scenes on the New York version. Consequently, there appears to be no evidence to suggest that there were ever three examples in existence (Waddesdon, Pierpont Morgan and Spitzer). However, the unique survival from the sixteenth century of two remarkably unusual - but also very similar - 'plateaux' is so improbable that a highly sceptical approach and a fresh critical assessment are more than warranted, especially as neither has a history that can be traced any earlier than 1872 and one was formerly in the possession of the notorious dealer in fakes and forgeries, Frédéric Spitzer.

When the Waddesdon Bequest example was next published in Hayward 1976 (p. 376, pl. 411), it was described as “Spanish or Portuguese, third quarter of the 16th century” and it was there noted that “another dish apparently en suite, but on a taller base, is in the Metropolitan Museum, New York”. In a recent re-examination of the New York version (reg. no. 17.190.603), however, the height of the foot and stem was found to be only one-eighth of an inch taller than the Waddesdon example; furthermore, the diameter of the foot-rim of the New York version was little more than a quarter of an inch bigger than the Waddesdon example.

In 1983 the XVII Exhibition of the Council of Europe was held in Lisbon. For the first time Portuguese Renaissance silver was brought together from all over the world to form part of a vast display at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, and subsequently given a permanent record in the Catalogue entitled ‘Os Descobrimentos Portugueses e a Europa do Renascimetlo: ‘Abre-se a terra em Sons e Cores’’ (‘The Portuguese Discoveries and Renaissance Europe’) (Lisbon, 1983). The concentration of so much silver plate served to highlight the distinctive national characteristics of Portuguese sixteenth-century silverwork, especially of the many dishes and fruteiros, some of which had remained in the possession of the Portuguese Royal Family and were lent from the collection in the Palacio Nacional da Ajuda. Another was lent from the Hapsburg Imperial Collection in Vienna, where it was first recorded in the reign of the Emperor Maximilian I (1493-1519) and was fully discussed in Ernst Kris, ‘Goldschmiedearbeiten’, Vienna, 1932, pp. 16-18, no. 25, pl. 16. It was most fortunate, therefore, that on this occasion the New York version of the Samson 'plateau' was also borrowed because, once in Lisbon, it could be studied alongside the very many well-documented examples of indisputable Portuguese origin. It was published in the ‘Lisbon Exhibition Catalogue’ (p. 292, no. 359) as Portuguese work of the sixteenth century ('Trabalho portugues, sec. XVI'), but unfortunately that entry is accompanied by the wrong illustration and, by mistake, the photograph of the New York 'plateau' has been reproduced on p. 289 and has been wrongly captioned 'No. 349'; most confusingly, this latter is another embossed historiated dish from the Pierpont Morgan Gift, but one that is dated 1537 and bears the Lisbon hallmark of a ship, an unidentified maker's mark and a post-1893 French import mark (see Hayward 1976, p. 362, pl. 266 for a better-quality illustration). The 1983 exhibition catalogue makes no reference to the existence of the Waddesdon Bequest version in London.

The New York version of the Samson 'plateau' bears neither the mark of the maker nor of the country of origin: it is struck with the modern Paris boar's head warranty mark for silver (Marc Rosenberg, ‘Der Goldschmiede Merkzeichen’, 3rd edn, Frankfurt, vol. IV 1928, R3 6597), in use since 1838. When seen in Lisbon in 1983 the New York example seemed, in the author's opinion, to be totally alien both in its style and in its execution. There were undoubtedly some rather general similarities in the overall conception, but when compared with the Lisbon Exhibition's remarkable sequence of dishes, beginning with the late fifteenth century (nos 12-13, 17-19) and continuing throughout the sixteenth century (nos 130-4, 136, 141, 143-5, 147, 349, 351-2, 355, 360), the profound differences were starkly revealed. Not unexpectedly, therefore, the possibility of a Spanish origin had already been suggested as an alternative seven years earlier in Hayward 1976 (p. 376, pl. 411), although attention was drawn in Chapter 9 (p. 189) to the fact that “so little Spanish domestic silver survives from the sixteenth century that we cannot be sure whether the vessels upon which our conclusions are based are representative”. Certainly, neither the documented pair of huge, two-handled covered vases in Seville Cathedral (H. 39 cm; see Hayward 1976, pl. 404) nor the many examples of Spanish Renaissance silver discussed in C. C. Oman, ‘The Golden Age of Hispanic Silver’ (London, 1968) are comparable, and it is significant that there was only one piece of extant silver-plate that could be identified in Hayward 1976 (p. 194) as “perhaps, the work of the same master” as the version in the Waddesdon Bequest - the controversial (and essentially unmarked) ewer and basin in the 1917 Pierpont Morgan Gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Hayward 1976, p. 369, pls 341, 343-4). The ewer and basin, which have no earlier history, were not borrowed for the Lisbon Council of Europe Exhibition in 1983 but, after the author's examination of the two pieces in 1970 (and on several subsequent occasions), the twelve plaques (uniquely attached by screws to the broad outer border of the basin) seemed remarkably similar in style and workmanship to the two extant versions of the Samson 'plateau'. Not only is the technique of screwing the plaques to the border of the basin atypical, but the construction of this large basin (DIAM. 52.1 cm) is most unusual in another respect: in order to conceal the screws and the ugly unfinished effect, much of the back has been covered by three concentric rings, engraved with fantastic creatures beside a river and an elaborate pattern of lively scrollwork, but the underside of the wide central frieze of hunting scenes is left exposed to view. The latter frieze is not unlike the hunting scenes on the stem of the New York version of the Samson 'plateau'. The twelve plaques, each separated by a Mannerist term and each having a different scene executed in high relief, are identified by an inscription engraved on a long classical 'label' (near the rim); they are a mixture of scenes taken from ancient history and the Apocrypha. Because of these many puzzling features - of technique, style, construction and iconography - the evidence of this basin (and its accompanying ewer) is, at best, inconclusive, especially as both pieces bear no marks except the Rome punch-mark of a later (eighteenth- or, more probably, nineteenth-century) period. Indeed, the twelve plaques, which have a clear relationship to the two versions of the Samson 'plateau', can be seen as the talented 'improvements' of a nineteenth-century owner. This modern trick of taking a relatively modest object and giving it various embellishments until it became a 'rare collector's item' was a deception not infrequently practised by Spitzer (and others) in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In addition to the many minor disturbing features in the details of dress and other stylistic oddities in the six scenes, perhaps the two most puzzling aspects of both the Samson 'plateaux' are, firstly, the exceptional design of the identical foot and stem (albeit differently decorated) and, secondly, the anti-clockwise sequence of the Samson cycle of six scenes. The latter phenomenon can be explained by examining the reverse of each dish and observing that when the craftsman is working from the back (as in the repoussé technique) the sequence is being executed in the normal clockwise direction. Not only is this mistake unlikely to have been made in the Renaissance, but it is unlikely to have been left uncorrected - and it is even less credible that this mistake should have been repeated by the same goldsmith in the same Renaissance workshop carrying out the commissions of some powerful and rich Spanish patron.

There are, therefore, sound reasons for doubting the age and origin of these two Samson 'plateaux' executed in the Iberian Renaissance style. A more far-reaching conclusion might be arrived at if, and when, all four suspect pieces could be studied and scientifically analysed in the one centre, especially if comparative analyses of reliably documented pieces were also available.


  • Franz Schestag, ‘katalog der Kuntsammlung des Freiherrn Anselm von Rothschild in Wein’, zweiter theil, Vienna, 1872, no. 531 (with illus.)
  • John Charles Robinson, 'Catalogue of the Special Loan Exhibition of Spanish and Portuguese Ornamental Art', South Kensington Museum, London, 1881, no. 628
  • 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. 99, pl. XXIII
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 99
  • J. F. Hayward, ‘Virtuoso Goldsmiths and the Triumphs of Mannerism 1540-1620’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, 1976, p. 194, p. 376, pl. 411
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum, II : The Silver Plate', British Museum, London, 1988, no. 59, figs. 335-350.
  • 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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