Curiosity: Rock crystal and enamelled silver casket
Origin: probably Vienna, Austria
Date: 2nd half 19th century (before 1882)
Maker: unknown/no maker’s mark
Measurements: ca. 14x12x9.5 cm
This lovely little casket once belonged to George Ernest John Powell of Nanteos (1842-82) He was a great lover of music and acquainted with composers such as Richard Wagner (1813-83), whose works he was quite fanatical about, and the pianist Clara Schumann (1819-96). She was not only a musician and composer in her own right but also the widow of composer Robert Schumann (1810-56). She gave Powell a fragment of her husband’s coffin which was once kept in this casket. Unfortunately, that fragment has long disappeared. As Powell was not very diligent in keeping notes about his acquisitions, we have no idea when exactly he received this gift. I could not even find a mention of it in any of his letters I had access to during my research. However, fragment and casket appear to have been presented to the University between 1879, when Powell first started giving parts of his collection to the institution, and his death in 1882.
Robert Schumann’s body, interred at the Old Cemetery, Bonn, Germany, was exhumed on the 7th of July 1879. It was discovered that parts of his skeleton and hair were still existent. Pieces of the composer’s original coffin and his hair were kept as mementos before his remains were reburied in a crypt on the 11th August the same year. The master mason received an ebony case with a lock of Schumann’s hair and also a fragment of the coffin.
The casket has a silver and enamel frame with sides and lid made of rock crystal (pure/clear quartz). The bottom is enamelled silver. Enamel is ground, coloured glass, which is bonded to a metal surface by firing. The design on the outside of the casket is cloisonné, which means that the individual enamel colours are enclosed by a pattern of metal wire that is soldered to a metal surface, in this case silver; this specific style is also called filigree enamel. Cloisonné was already developed by the 6th century and filigree enamel was invented in 13th century Venice. The word derives from the French cloison, which means partition. The tops of the torches, which the little putti on each corner of the lid carry, are seed pearls. I could not discover a maker’s mark, but the casket very much resembles examples manufactured by two 19th century Viennese master silver- and goldsmiths, Hermann Böhm and Hermann Ratzersdorfer. They both took their inspiration from 16th century objects of the Austrian Imperial Collection and the Green Vaults at Dresden castle. They ran successful businesses and won awards for their precious works made from rock crystal, enamel, gold and silver at events such as the Viennese Exhibition in 1873.
The pastoral scene depicted on the base of the inside shows the Greek god Apollo with his lyre and laurel wreath. He is usually presented as a well-built, beardless youth. He is sitting beneath a laurel-tree, which could refer to the story of Daphne; Apollo fell in love with Daphne, but she didn’t reciprocate his affections and fled, praying to Zeus that he might hide her from sight. Zeus, incidentally Apollo’s father, heard her plea and turned her into a laurel-tree. Apollo, disappointed that he couldn’t have her, broke a twig from the tree and put it on his head declaring as he did so: “Since you cannot be my bride, you shall at least be my tree. My hair, my lyre, my quiver shall always be entwined with you, O laurel.” (Apollo. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.556).
Beautiful women, probably seven of the nine muses, surround Apollo; he is regarded as their leader in Greek mythology. I could not identify all of them, but the lady to the far left might be Calliope; she is the oldest of the muses and attributed to philosophy and epic poetry. She is usually portrayed with a stylus, an antique writing implement, and tablet – or in this case what appears to be a book. Sitting close to her in a green garment, is Euterpe who is admired for her beautiful singing voice; her emblematic instrument is the flute. To Apollo’s left sits the muse of history, Clio, holding her symbol the scroll. Pan, god of wild nature and shepherds, is depicted with his flute behind Calliope.
It is very likely that the scene was adapted from a tapestry designed by Flemish artist Jan van Orley (1665-1735) and woven by Urbanus Leyniers (1674-1747) in Brussels. The tapestry, called The Glorification of Apollo (1717), is part of a series of five tapestries depicting the glorification of the gods and in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.
The portrait of Robert Schumann included in the below image gallery was commissioned, most probably posthumously, by George Powell and created by his friend, German artist Wilhelm Kümpel (1822-80).
(Click on the images to enlarge them. Photographs by Emily Harrison & Neil Holland)
Special thanks go to Dr. Ingrid Bodsch, Director of the StadtMuseum Bonn, Germany, who very kindly assisted me with finding out more about Robert Schumann’s grave and provided me with the article by Gerd Nauhaus.
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