With the daring amalgamation of the whimsical, exotic, and macabre, the sculptural details on this ewer brilliantly show off the distinctive Portuguese interpretation of Renaissance style."
This rare and monumental silver-gilt ewer unites a superior level of craftsmanship with an unusually compelling decorative scheme and an exalted provenance. It has passed through the hands of three of the most distinguished royal houses of Europe: the dynasties of Braganza, and the dukes of Saxe-Coburg and Hohenzollern. Until it resurfaced in 2012, it was considered a lost masterpiece, last seen publicly at an exhibition mounted in Lisbon in 1882, then described as a loan of Fernando II (1816–1885), king of Portugal.
Such display pieces were essential in a princely palace, as a marker of noble etiquette and a theatrical demonstration of political power. With the daring amalgamation of the whimsical, exotic, and macabre, the sculptural details on this ewer brilliantly show off the distinctive Portuguese interpretation of Renaissance style.
The decoration combines the extravagant and the bizarre, including fabulous beasts, mythological creatures, and all-too-mortal humans, here used as symbols of vanitas, earthly fame, fleeting beauty, and inevitable death. The ewer thus mirrors perfectly the period's taste for the odd and unexpected, partly an outgrowth of the astonishing economic successes of Portuguese navigators' voyages of discovery in the early sixteenth century. The spout seems to represent the sphinx that controlled Thebes in ancient Greece through her deadly riddle: "A thing there is whose voice is one; whose feet are four and two and three." Oedipus answered "man," since over the course of their lives humans first crawl, then walk upright, and, ultimately, require a walking stick. By answering correctly, Oedipus escaped the deadly jaws of the sphinx and freed the city. On the ewer's neck, in relief, is the figure of an infant with a cane, a succinct evocation of the riddle's solution.
The stylized elephant handle with its enormous tusks was apparently inspired by King Manuel I of Portugal's (1469–1521) passion for white elephants. The monarch's best-known diplomatic gift was Hanno (or Annone), which was given to Pope Leo X in 1514. In Europe, the elephant's strength and wisdom were associated with the virtue of magnanimity. King Manuel had received the young white elephant from Cochin, on the southwest coast of India, where this extremely rare species was an object of special veneration. Likely a royal commission, this ewer is an object with a very special exuberance, one that is a triumphant addition to the Met's collection in every way.
Marina Kellen French Curator
Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts