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Mortar

  • Place of origin:

    Nuremberg, Germany (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1550 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown (production)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Bronze

  • Museum number:

    M.16-1939

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval and Renaissance, room 64, case 21

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This mortar, dating from around 1550, is decorated with reliefs cast from plaquettes by Peter Flötner representing Pride (one of the Seven Deadly Sins), Hope (one of the Three Virtues), an allegory of a man and a woman falling in love, led by a cupid, and a vanitas of a sleeping infant resting with his leg on a skull and with an hourglass. The lower parts of the body and the joints are masked by plant forms whilst around the lip are two lizards cast from life.

Flötner was a sculptor, medallist, cabinetmaker, woodcutter and designer. He worked initially in Augsburg from around 1512 to 1516 before moving to Nuremberg where he became a citizen in 1522. He produced many woodcuts and designs for goldsmiths.

Mortars and pestles were used for centuries to grind and mix substances used in medicine, alchemy, cosmetics, cooking and gunpowder manufacture. Craftsmen including painters and goldsmiths also used them to reduce materials to powder form. During the 16th century, mortars and pestles were standard domestic utensils. They were used daily in the preparation of food. Herbs and spices, loaves of sugar, grains and other ingredients were virtually all of supplied whole until the 18th century and ground in the home. Mortars were also used for grinding soaps and for the preparation of perfumes.

Most families of middle wealth or above produced their own drugs and medicines in various forms. Larger households possessed several mortars for preparing potions and remedies. The modern garden evolved from the plots outside larger households in which grew the life preserving herbs and flowers used in medicine.

Mortars and pestles were also standard tools of the trade for physicians and apothecaries. The French physician Philbert Guibert stated in his Le Medecin Charitable (1625) that it was "... necessary to furnish an Apothecary [with] ... a great Morter of Brass weighing fifty of sixty pound or more, with a pestle of iron,. A little Morter weighing five or six pounds with a pestle of the same matter. A middle sized Morter of Marble, and a pestle of wood, and a stone morter with the same pestle."

Apothecaries were distrusted by some scientific writers. The Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-64) criticised the trend of apothecaries replacing doctors in the preparation of medicines: "... as long as there are apothecaries and mortars, there is no art in medicine other than child's play, confusion, and drunken revelry."

Mortars were also associated with alchemy, the quest to turn base metals into gold. Alchemy was an experimental science and philosophy which sought to understand transformation and the relationship between people and their surroundings. The lizards on this mortar were alchemical symbols: lizards and salamanders were believed to be impervious to, and to regenerate in, fire. Mortars were deemed to have special properties: in them one might discover the secret of life.

Physical description

Mortar, bronze, bucket-shaped with wide flared lip, the narrow base circled by a pronounced ridge, the steep walls decorated with reliefs cast from plaquettes by Peter Flötner representing Pride (one of the Seven Deadly Sins), Hope (one of the Three Virtues), an allegory of a man and a woman falling in love, led by a cupid, and a vanitas of a sleeping infant resting with his leg on a skull and with an hourglass. The lower parts of the body and the joints are masked by plant forms whilst around the lip are two lizards cast from life and more plant forms.

Place of Origin

Nuremberg, Germany (possibly, made)

Date

ca. 1550 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown (production)

Materials and Techniques

Bronze

Dimensions

Height: 12.4 cm, Diameter: 16.7 cm lip, Diameter: 7.9 cm base

Object history note

The mortar was bought by the Museum with funds from the Murray Bequest in 1939. The Museum bought the mortar from Alfred Spero, 48 Duke Street, SW1 for £140. Its provenance prior to 1939 is unknown.

Historical significance: This mortar is of exceptional quality. It is cast with designs based on the plaquettes of one of the most significant woodcut artists of the 16th century, Peter Flötner (born Thurgau, Switzerlan, 1485–96, died Nuremberg, 23 Nov 1546). Flötner produced several series of plaquettes including The Virtues, The Seven Deadly Sins, Eminent Women of Classical Antiquity and TheSeven Gods of the Planets. The designs on this mortar represent Pride (one of the Seven Deadly Sins), Hope (one of the Three Virtues), an allegory of a man and a woman falling in love, led by a cupid, and a vanitas of a sleeping infant resting with his leg on a skull and with an hourglass.

Flötner was a sculptor, medallist, cabinetmaker, woodcutter and designer. He worked initially in Augsburg from around 1512 to 1516 before moving to Nuremberg where he became a citizen in 1522. Changes in Flötner style after around 1530 suggest he may have travelled to Italy. His emblem was a mallet and skewchisel.

There are four other known mortars cast from the same plaquettes as the V&A example, in the Wallace Collection, the Schlossmuseum Berlin, The Cleveland Museum of Art and another in a private collection. The V&A appears to be less worn that some of the other examples.

Flötner's workshop catered for bell-founders, goldsmiths, pewterers and medallists supplying them with plaques made of lead, tin, bronze and solnhofen limestone. They were used like pattern books. The plaques were arranged in lines and a clay or plaster mould was made from them. In these moulds wax models were cast which were then applied to the outside of the wax models bells, mortars and tankards before they were cast in metal. On this mortar one can see where the founder omitted to disguise all the edges of the wax models cast from the plaquettes leaving each scene in its own rectangle.

Otto von Falke attributes the work of the mortar to Wenzel Jamnitzer working with lead plaquettes of the work of the elder Peter Flotner. Jamnitzer (1508-85) was skilled in casting from life.

Historical context note

The word 'mortar' evolved from the Latin mortarium and possibly derives from mordeo meaning to bite. This in turn may relate to the Sanskrit mrdi meaning to grind or pound. (Motture, p.37)

Mortars and pestles were used for centuries to grind and mix substances used in medicine, alchemy, cosmetics, cooking and gunpowder manufacture. Craftsmen including painters and goldsmiths also used them to reduce materials to powder form.

Copper based mortars and pestles were used particularly for grinding hard substances such as barks, resins, and spices. Marble mortars were recommended for powdery and dry materials, and pills and potions were often ground in glass. The smallest mortars were not much larger than thimbles and may have been used more as display pieces than functional items. Some mortars were over 50cm high and were extremely heavy. Their accompanying pestles might be suspended from a counter spring which took some of the weight.

The basic bucket shape of mortars was established by the 16th century, with the diameter of its opening about half as large again as the internal diameter of the base and its height roughly equivalent to the larger diameter at the top. They replaced the tall, slender mortars of the 15th century, with their vertical ribbed bands and (sometimes) figural feet. The new mortars originated in Italy and demonstrated strong horizontal planes displaying friezes and inscriptions. Inscriptions bearing the owners’ names were quite common and sometimes record the maker’s name.

Motifs for decorating mortars and bells during the 16th century included running foliage, imaginary creatures, animals and stylised heads. Under the lip of this mortar are two lizards cast from life. Bronze life casts were extremely popular in the 16th century. Lizards, crabs and insects were killed in a way designed to cause minimal damage to the appearance of their bodies such as by drowning. The creature was arranged in a pose and then covered in a plaster mix. The plaster would then be fired to burn out the body and create a mould which could be used for multiple casts.

The fashion for highly decorated mortars continued until the mid 17th century when plain surfaces returned. Mortars became purely functional. By the 18th century their use declined as commercial grinding machines became more common. Metal mortars declined in particular as there was also an increased awareness of the dangers of using copper based materials for preparing food.

During the 16th century, mortars and pestles were standard domestic utensils. They were used daily in the preparation of food. As exploration opened up new territories and supply routes, new spices were imported from the East and the New World. Herbs and spices, loaves of sugar, grains and other ingredients were virtually all supplied whole until the 18th century and ground in the home. Mortars were also used for grinding soaps and for the preparation of perfumes. Before 1500 it was customary for wealthy merchants and aristocrats to give their new daughters-in-law a mortar as a wedding present.

Most families of middle wealth or above produced their own drugs and medicines in various forms. Larger households possessed several mortars for preparing potions and remedies. The modern garden evolved from the plots outside larger households in which grew the life preserving herbs and flowers used in medicine.

Mortars and pestles were also standard tools of the trade for physicians and apothecaries. The French physician Philbert Guibert stated in his Le Medecin Charitable (1625) that it was "... necessary to furnish an Apothecary [with] ... a great Morter of Brass weighing fifty of sixty pound or more, with a pestle of iron,. A little Morter weighing five or six pounds with a pestle of the same matter. A middle sized Morter of Marble, and a pestle of wood, and a stone morter with the same pestle."

Apothecaries were distrusted by some scientific writers. The Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-64) criticised the trend of apothecaries replacing doctors in the preparation of medicines: "Thus the apothecaries arose, and as long as there are apothecaries and mortars, there is no art in medicine other than child's play, confusion, and drunken revelry." (quoted from Pagel, Walter, 'Vesalius and Paracelsus' in Winder, Marianne ed., From Paracelsus to Van Helmont: Studies in Renaissance Science, London 1986, p. 322)

Mortars were also associated with alchemy, the quest to turn base metals into gold. Indeed the lizards on this mortar were alchemical symbols, as they were believed to be impervious to, and to regenerate in, fire. Alchemy was an experimental science and philosophy which sought to understand transformation and the relationship between people and their surroundings. Mortars were deemed to have special properties: in them one might discover the secret of life.

Descriptive line

Bronze, decorated with reliefs cast from plaquettes by Pieter Flotner. German. about 1550. The side cast from four plaquettes depicting Pride, Hope, an allegory of a man and a woman led astray by a cupid, and a sleeping infant with leg resting on a skull beside an hour glass.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Bronze, The Power of Life and Death, Exhibition Catalogue, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 15 September 2005 - 7 January 2006, Cat. 9, p.62
Haedeke, Hanns-Ulrich, Metalwork, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1970, pp. 86-91
General history of mortars
Motture, Peta, Bells & Mortars: Catalogue of Italian Bronzes in the Victoria and Albert Museum, V&A Publications, 2001
Includes a general introduction with a history of mortars and bells including references to northern Europe.
Dienst, Barbara, Der Kosmos Des Peter Flötner: Eine Bildwelt Der Renaissance in Deutschland, Kunstwissenschaftliche Studien, Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2002
Dienst's book on Flötner illustrates examples of the plaquettes used in the casting of this mortar:
p. 136: Allegory of Love (Museum Mayer vanden Bergh)
p. 260: Pride (Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich)
p. 375: Hope (Basel Historischesmuseum)
p. 380: Vanitas (Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich)
Chipps Smith, Jeffrey, Nuremberg: A Renaissance City, 1500-1618, Published for the Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, The University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas Press, 1983, ISBN 0292755279, p. 224
For information on Flötner and his associates

Exhibition History

Bronze, the power of life and death (Henry Moore Institute, Leeds 15/09/2005-07/01/2006)

Labels and date

Bronze, The Power of Life and Death, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds:
Original plaquettes by Peter Flötner (c.1485-1546)
Mortar decorated with reliefs cast from plaquettes, with Pride, Hope and an allegory of a man and woman being led astray by Cupid
Southern Germany; c.1550
Bronze [15/09/2005]
MORTAR
Bronze
South German; about 1525-50
The figures are based on designs by Peter Flötner but the naturalistic animal decoration resembles that on the objects in precious metals by goldsmiths such as Wenzel Jamnitzer. Casts were sometimes made directly from insects or plants and, according to Johann Neudorfer, the skill of Jamnitzer and his brother "in making castings of little animals, worms, grasses and snails in silver and decorating silver vessels therewith has never been heard of before".

Associated names

Peter Flötner

Production Note

Attributed as the work of Wenzel Jamnitzer working with lead plaquettes of the work of the Elder Peter Flötner (around 1485-1546).

Materials

Bronze

Techniques

Casting

Subjects depicted

Hope; Pride

Categories

Household objects; Containers; Metalwork; Sculpture; Science; Designs; Myths & Legends; Tools & Equipment; Health

Collection code

MET

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