Ancient Forms in Modern Times

December 12, 2018
2012.6 This silver stirrup cup in the form of a fox head (1771), used as a drinking vessel for hunters on horseback, is just one example of an object from the modern era that is included in the exhibition.

A menagerie of animal forms—bulls, rams, donkeys, lions, deer, and a hippo among them—fills our Animal-Shaped Vessels exhibition. Their origins span an astonishingly wide array of eras, cultures, and locations.

The enduring appeal of these unique objects is hardly surprising, said exhibition curator Susanne Ebbinghaus, the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art and head of the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art.

“The relationship between animals and humans has endured for millennia,” Ebbinghaus said. “Humans have always had close bonds with animals, and animals have been essential to human survival,” she said, noting the dual, and sometimes conflicting, role of animals as companion and food source.

Animal-Shaped Vessels is replete with testaments to this powerful bond, in the form of drinking and pouring vessels. While the exhibition’s primary focus is on examples from the ancient world, these types of vessels have persisted into modern times. The exhibition includes a few striking objects from the past five centuries, such as an elaborate automaton (a self-propelled mechanism) from 17th-century Europe, an 18th-century English silver stirrup cup (used by hunters on horseback), and 20th-century drinking horns from West Africa and Europe.

“The modern objects in the exhibition are illuminating,” Ebbinghaus said. “They can tell us a little more about their users and contexts than most ancient vessels, which require us to try to reconstruct details from their appearance and the archaeological contexts in which they were found.”

Treasures in Silver

The automaton in the exhibition was created by an artist working in Augsburg, Bavaria—one of the most important centers of European goldsmithing in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The partially gilded silver object comprises a statuette of the goddess Diana riding a stag, accompanied by two dogs and other animals. The stag and dog statuettes are hollow, with ample space to hold wine or other liquids, and a spring-driven mechanism hides inside the automaton’s base. The object might have been used as a table ornament or activated in a drinking game (called Trinkspiel).

Joachim Fries, German, Diana and stag automaton, 1610–20. Cast and chased silver, partially gilded and painted with translucent lacquers. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with funds donated anonymously and the William Francis Warden Fund, Frank B. Bemis Fund, Mary S. and Edward Jackson Holmes Fund, John Lowell Gardner Fund, and by exchange from the Bequest of William A. Coolidge, 2004.568. © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Joachim Fries, German, Diana and stag automaton, 1610–20. Cast and chased silver, partially gilded and painted with translucent lacquers. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum purchase with funds donated anonymously and the William Francis Warden Fund, Frank B. Bemis Fund, Mary S. and Edward Jackson Holmes Fund, John Lowell Gardner Fund, and by exchange from the Bequest of William A. Coolidge, 2004.568. © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

As Thomas Michie, the Russell B. and Andrée Beauchamp Stearns Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, writes in the Animal-Shaped Vessels catalogue, when the automaton was wound up and set in motion, hidden wheels in its base prompted it to zigzag across the table. “Wherever she [Diana] stopped, the closest sitter was obliged to lift the stag (if a man) or the largest dog (if a woman) off the base, remove its head (decorative collars cover the joints), and drink the wine that filled its hollow body,” Michie writes. (See a video of this object in motion on the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, website.)

Another vessel with perhaps a more practical use is a stirrup cup in the shape of a fox head, from late 18th-century England. Stirrup cups were meant to be handed to hunters on horseback (thus, in stirrups), just before the chase. The inscription reads “Success to the Tettcots Hunt and to the death of the Next.” Though it was created in honor of the hunting tradition in a village in Devon, the vessel was inspired by ancient Greek and Roman models.

Drinking Horns

Certain vessels were made using an actual part of the animal: namely, drinking horns. To create these curved cups, artisans obtained the horns of bovids, including buffalo, bison, and domestic cattle. They removed the horn’s core and rough outer bark, polished the remaining keratin surface, and sometimes added embellishments or decoration.

Evidence for the use of drinking horns—and vessels mimicking natural horns—has been traced to as early as the second millennium BCE, in the Caucasus and Scandinavia. The early Celts, the Scythians of the Eurasian steppes, and some ancient Greeks also embraced this vessel form. In certain parts of the world, drinking horns remain in use today.

One 20th-century example in the exhibition hails from Eastern Europe but surprisingly boasts a place in modern American history. A drinking horn with a duck head finial, on loan from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, was one of four highly polished Georgian drinking horns given by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to President John F. Kennedy on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis.

Drinking horn with duck head finial, Georgian, c. 1960 CE. Bovine horn, silver, and niello. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Gifts from Heads of State, MO 63.2470.1. Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Photo: Joel Benjamin.
Drinking horn with duck head finial, Georgian, c. 1960 CE. Bovine horn, silver, and niello. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston, Gifts from Heads of State, MO 63.2470.1. Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. Photo: Joel Benjamin.

The gift was offered while U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall was visiting the Soviet Union in September 1962. His trip culminated in an encounter with Khrushchev at his villa on the Black Sea coast—an area renowned for its vineyards. During dinner, Khrushchev announced that he would send President and Mrs. Kennedy some of the best Georgian wines, as well as a wine drinking horn (above).

Though it may have seemed a simple diplomatic gesture at the time, in hindsight one can perhaps read more into the gift. As Ebbinghaus observed, “Essentially, here was Khrushchev secretly sending missiles to Cuba, yet at the very same time inviting the American president to share a drink with him. You can’t help but wonder whether that might have helped establish a basis for communication during the Cuban missile crisis.”

Drinking horns were in the hands of leaders elsewhere, as well. In the Bamum Kingdom of what is now the Republic of Cameroon, for instance, decorated drinking vessels made from buffalo horns have traditionally denoted royalty. As missionary Paul Gebauer wrote, “A man’s drinking cup is a status symbol. The commoner has a gourd to drink from; the more prosperous a cut and highly polished cowhorn. Men of authority have the ebony-black, highly carved royal buffalo horn cup.”

The motifs carved on a drinking horn acquired from a Bamum marketplace by Gebauer in 1932 include a man with a prestigious headdress holding a horn; other designs feature a spider and buffalo heads. Another Bamum drinking horn ends in a bead-covered head with an elaborate headdress. Carvings of lizards or crocodiles—animals with royal connotations—adorn the surface of the horn.


Ceremonial drinking horn, Bamum Kingdom, Grassfields region, Cameroon, early 20th century CE. Buffalo horn and camwood powder. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1972, 1972.4.63. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: Art Resource, N.Y.

Ceremonial drinking horn, Bamum Kingdom, Grassfields region, Cameroon, early 20th century CE. Buffalo horn, glass beads, fiber, and cotton cloth. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979, 1979.206.34. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: Art Resource, N.Y.

As all of these objects attest, animals have been a persistent source of inspiration for civilizations around the world. Their imagery and form often convey a high degree of symbolism or significance. And on the most basic level, it’s also clear that incorporating animals on such unique vessels has been “a major driving force for artistic creativity,” Ebbinghaus said.

“It’s very exciting to observe connections between animal-shaped vessels in different parts of the world,” she said. “They tell us a great deal—not just about the objects themselves, but also about the extensive exchange of artistic forms and techniques over millennia.”