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Mortar and pestle

Mortar and pestle

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Copper-alloy (probably bronze), cast

  • Museum number:

    2176-1855

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

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.

The inscription on this mortar records that it was commissioned in 1540 by 'Otte Ke[y?]', a magistrate in Hengelo, Holland, and that is was made by Segeumus Hatiseren. It is of exceptional quality. The casting is crisp and most of the decorative elements are in excellent condition.

Motifs for decorating mortars during the 16th century included running foliage, imaginary creatures, animals and stylised heads. Some symbols gave a hint of the function of the mortar. One of the motifs on this mortar depicts St. Sebastian being shot with arrows for refusing to denounce his faith. This may be an allusion to the life giving properties of medicines as Sebastian was venerated as a protector against plague.

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.

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."

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 were also associated with alchemy, the quest to turn base metals into gold. Mortars were deemed to have special properties: in them one might discover the secret of life.

Materials and Techniques

Copper-alloy (probably bronze), cast

Object history note

The inscription on the mortar records that it was commissioned in 1540 by 'Otte Ke[y?]', a magistrate in Hengelo, Holland. Additional information in the Museum Register, 'supplied by H.C. Gallois, of the Hague Town Museum' records that 'Ott [sic] Key was richter [magistrate] of Hengelo from 1540 for some years'. It also states that, 'Bells by Sigeuimus [sic] Hatiseren are found in Gelderland'. The pestle may well date from the mid-16th century but has no identifying marks to verify that it is original to the mortar.

The provenance of the mortar and pestle until the 19th century is not known. They were bought by the Museum from the Bernal Collection in 1855. This was an enormous collection of metalwork, glass, ceramics and miniatures belonging to Ralph Bernal, a lawyer and MP. The sale by Christie, Manson and Woods took 32 days during which 4294 lots fetched nearly £71,000. The Museum bought 730 lots including this mortar and pestle for which it paid £5.

Historical significance: This mortar is of exceptional quality. The casting is crisp and most of the decorative elements are in excellent condition. In style it straddles the Gothic and the Renaissance. The 2 friezes of running foliage resemble architectural mouldings of the 15th century. The shooting with arrows of St Sebastian was a typical late Gothic subject for decorating objects perceived to have life-preserving properties. The inscription recording that it was made for Otte Key in Hengelo by Segeumus Hatiseren in 1540 is in Gothic script. The shape of the mortar, however, with its strong horizontal banding and wide flared lip, and the use of the lion and cupid motifs, is typical of the mid 16th century. It appears that a mixture of old and new moulds have been used in the manufacture of the mortar.

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 that 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, as with this example, record the maker’s name.

Motifs for decorating mortars and bells during the 16th century included running foliage, imaginary creatures, animals and stylised heads. Some symbols gave a hint of the function of the mortar. One of the motifs on this mortar depicts St. Sebastian being shot with arrows for refusing to denounce his faith. This may be an allusion to the life giving properties of medicines as Sebastian was venerated as a protector against plague.

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.

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)

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 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. Mortars were deemed to have special properties: in them one might discover the secret of life.

Descriptive line

Mortar, copper-alloy (probably bronze), The Netherlands (probably Hengelo), made by Segeumus Hatiseren, 1540; and pestle (probably 16th century but unlikely to be original to the mortar)

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

Eric Turner An Introduction to Brass, London, HMSO, 1982, p.22 ill. ISBN 088045007X
Haedeke, Hanns-Ulrich, Metalwork, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1970, pp. 86-91
ter Kuile, Onno, Koper & Brons, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Staatsuitgeverij 's-gravenhage, 1986, pp. 201-220
Motture, Peta, Bells & Mortars: Catalogue of Itlaian Bronzes in the Victoria and Albert Museum, V&A Publications, 2001

Labels and date

Gallery 26, Case 2
MORTAR AND PESTLE
Bronze
NETHERLANDISH; dated 1540
2176&A-1855
Mortars were used to grind spices often for medicinal use and this example has applied to it figures of St. Sebastian and Roche to whom prayers were often offered for protection against the plague. In wealthy households mortars could be elaborately decorated and were sometimes given as wedding gifts. Many carry the name of the original owner; this mortar has a cast inscription recording that it was commissioned by Ottocar Richter van Hengel and made by Segeeuinus Hatijeren in 1540.
[For correct reading of inscription see 'Marks/Subjects'] [10/04/1991]

Materials

Copper alloy

Techniques

Casting

Categories

Containers; Household objects; Metalwork; Science; Tools & Equipment

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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