Silver owl hallmarked Antwerp

This goblet in the form of an owl – the oldest known Antwerp piece made from coconut – is surprising because of its technical mastery. It was doubtless one of the masterpieces of an art collection or of a showcase of curiosities. Created during the golden age of Antwerp silverware, this piece tells us a lot about life at the time. It testifies to the wealth of a bygone period, the development of the port of Antwerp, the import of exotic products and high quality silver craftsmanship. This magnificent work of art can now be admired at DIVA in Antwerp.

An Antwerp master

At the side of the silversmith’s hallmark – a pelican – and the date 1548 -1549, we can see a familiar little hand that reminds us of the legend of Brabo who cut off the hand of Antigone the giant and threw it into the River Escaut. Although we do not know the artist’s name, we know for certain that this goblet in the shape of an owl comes from Antwerp. The inscription “Als alle fogels sin thoe neste, so is min flige beste” (If all the birds slept in their nest, I should be the best in flight) refers to old German and Dutch songs. The song evokes the owl’s love for the nightingale.

A cup for drinking or a decorative object?

During the Renaissance, goblets in the shape of animals made in the former Netherlands and German territories were objects that had both functional and decorative purposes. They were collected by amateurs of exotic objects and exhibited with great pride on sideboards or in curiosity cabinets. They were also used in certain circumstances. The owl’s head in silver could be unscrewed and liquid poured into the bird’s body. It is not known for sure, however, whether anyone really drank from this Antwerp goblet. Another line of enquiry encourages us to look for the origins of the owl in the city’s system of corporations. Around 1561, a number of references speak about an owl in relation to the Antwerp Guild of Crossbowmen. It is possible that members of the guild used such cups on special occasions.

Animal symbolism

Representations of animals generally had a particular symbolic connotation. The case of the owl, however, is less obvious. The owl is sometimes considered to be a symbol of wisdom (as in the attribute of Athena), but it can also be associated with greed, madness or the hunt, or even have a certain erotic connotation, inevitably related to its being a night bird.

Publication « Chouette au poinçon d'Anvers »
Website DIVA – Museum of Silverwork, Jewellery and Diamonds, Antwerp
Further information about the Heritage Fund (in French)

Type: 
Ewer
Material / technique: 
Coconut, silver and silver gilt
Dimensions: 
17 cm H
Type of acquisition: 
Heritage Fund Acquisition
Year of acquisition: 
2002
Depository institution: 
DIVA – Museum of Silverwork, Jewellery and Diamonds, Antwerp