This flask was probably the property of a pilgrim whose initials were F.G. as these appeared inscribed in the bottle. The pilgrim would have used it to carry drinking water during a pilgrimage to one or several religious sites around 1690, the date that appears inscribed at the bottom of the flask. Because of the style and the decorative elements on the flask, it is believed that the object and /or its original owner came from Central Europe, probably from Hungary.
This is a very rare piece that combines a small object of day-to-day life, a flask made from a modest material, a dried gourd, with an extraordinary wealth of decorative motifs and vignettes that virtually cover its entire surface and provides us with a unique insight into the visual culture of late 17th century central Europe.
Objects such as this one rarely survive to our days, which makes this flask an even more unusual find. This object has an remarkable patina and one can see from the slightly discoloured top part that its owner would have used it and drunk from it. Its survival may be explained by the symbolic and emotional attachment of the original owner to this object who is likely to have commissioned this object for very personal reasons, judging from its very unusual decorations, executed with great skill.
The object’s provenance from a deceased estate in France could indicate that the object was held in great esteem not just by its original owner but also by later generations who regarded it as a family heirloom. Emigration from central Europe, in particular Poland and Hungary, to France is not a rare phenomenon, due to close cultural and economic connections, and the number of Hungarian emigres increases in particular after the Hungarian independence forces were defeated by the Austrian army in 1849. It is therefore not impossible that the object may have entered France as a result of emigration.
Pilgrim flasks from late antiquity to the 18th and 19th centuries are found in museums such as the V&A or the British Museum but rarely do we find such level of decoration. Older items are typically made in earthenware or stoneware whilst in later periods, more durable materials such as metals are used. From late medieval times, pilgrim flasks are made in maiolica, ceramic as well as glass. When new materials are used, the shape of the flasks continues to echo the original shape of a gourd, the hard rimmed fruit that grows in Africa, Asia and the Middle East primarily.
The particular significance of this flask that it is still made from a dried gourd in the late 17th century but the very detailed decoration applied seems to indicate that great care was taken in the conception as well as the execution of the design with a burin. A flask made from a gourd appears frequently in medieval and early modern imagery as part of the usual attire of a pilgrim but as practical objects without practically any adornment.
The belly of the flask is decorated with three vignettes where a tale seems to be personified by three strange figures resembling large anthropomorphic cats. Two of these ‘cats’ appear to perform a medical or perhaps magical procedure to one of the cats whose softer features indicate it may be a female. Whilst the narrative is not clear, there seems to be a birth and a burial involved, and so it could refer to themes of fertility, maternity and more generally illness and death. In one of the vignettes we see a figure wearing a cape that seems to oversee the proceedings, indicating perhaps that it is a figure of authority or of medical expertise. The presence of cat-like figures is significant. At this time, cats were often associated with Eastern cultures such as Egypt, Iran or even further east and so the narrative may refer to a folk story or a myth of oriental origin. In a second vignette we see one of the figures holding a large device or vessel that seems to be injecting the postrated figure. And in the third vignette one of the cats is holding a somewhat rigid small cat, perhaps a newborn or a stillborn, on one hand whilst with the other he appears to wave away two other cats who are carrying away a long box that may be a coffin. This is reinforced by the presence of a hole that has been digged in the ground.
At the end of the middle ages, the borders of central Europe are permanently shifting and many territories move from East to West and vice-versa as wars continue to be fought. The christian kingdom of Hungary was periodically at war with eastern powers from the tartars to the mongols. From the 15th century the Ottoman empire is the dominant power in the region and cultural and commercial exchanges are, if anything, intensified.
The upper part of the flask is decorated with small panoramas of three fortified cities whose names are inscribed as Siena, Varad°. and Mõgaz°. and this provides us with further information about its geographical origin. The likely origin of the last two cities in 17th century Hungary indicate the object is likely to be from Hungarian or at any rate from Central Europe.
Siena appears to be the well-known city in present-day Italy that was the capital of the Republic of Siena that ended in 1555 when it became annexed to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. In the 17th century Siena’s cathedral was a site of pilgrimage, in particular to honour St. Catherine of Siena known for her role in bringing the papacy back to Rome from Avignon (1377) but also as a patron saint of sickness, illnesses and nurses as well as of mothers and miscarriages. St. Catherine is also known to have encouraged women to join pilgrimages and crusades, to the irritation of some of the Church’s authorities.
Varad°. is most likely to be the city of Varadinum, today called Oradea in present-day Rumania. Varadinum was founded in the 10th century and in the 11th century King Ladislaus I of Hungary, who would be canonised in 1192, built a fortified monastery with Virgin Saint Mary as patron. He also laid the foundations for its bishopric where other Hungarian kings were later buried. In 1401, Pope Bonifacius IX confers a privilege to the bishopric, bringing it to the same rank as San Marco Church of Venice and Santa Maria Portiuncula of Assisi. Thus, Varadinum becomes a pilgrimage place for Christians from all over Europe. The bishopric had its own corps of troops and it participated in the crusades as well as other battles such as that of Mohacs where its leader Perenyi Ferenc fell in 1526.
Mõgaz°. May be the city of Mohacs, Hungary. If it is, this city is best known for the Battle of Mohacs (1526) in which the Hungarians were defeated by the Ottomans which led led to the partition of Hungary for several centuries. Ottoman domination of Hungary would end in 1687 when the second Battle of Mohacs resulted in the victory of the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold the I (1640 –1705, also King of Hungary and Bohemia). Beyond this historical significance, however, subject to further research we have not been able to establish a definitive connection to a pilgrimage theme that is dominant in the other elements of the flask.
In addition to the three vignettes and the three city panoramas, the bottle features other elements that could be significant to understand its overall meaning. On the bottom of the belly, between the three vignettes, we find three characters, a bird that is probably a stork, a hare or rabbit and a seated male figure with a crown holding a spear. We can also see the face of an infant on the neck of the bottle as well as, throughout the rest of the surface of the bottle floral elements, garlands and baskets with fruits.
The stork was already at this time associated with birth. Cultural notions of birds as messengers of the Gods go back to Mediterranean as well as northern European cultures. In old germanic languages, adebar, the word for stork, comes from the verb bern, bero (take, bring) and od (property) or atem (breath) and as a result the stork is considered in these countries the bird which brings fortune, gifts and the breath of life to children.
The rabbit or hare has long been a symbol of fertility. In particular the three hares symbol that appears in many medieval churches in Northern Europe and sometimes in illuminated manuscripts next to images of the Virgin and Child. The connection to the Virgin Mary was probably due to the medieval belief that hares may be hermaphrodites and be able to procreate without sexual intercourse.
The seated male figure crowed and holding a spear appears to be a warrior, perhaps a god. The crown recalls a laureate. In relation to the fortified cities that appear in the flask, this figure could refer to a heroic king or general whose actions have provided protection to their people against repeated invasions from the tartars, the mongols or the ottomans. The effigies of Hungarian kings such as Matthias Corvinus (1443-1490) who still appear in coins of the time when this flask was made, bear a certain resemblance to this figure.
Finally, on the neck of the bottle is the face of a little infant, a boy or perhaps an angel. Although there is little to indicate the indicate the precise meaning of this figure, considering the references to fertility and birth present in the flask, one could speculate that perhaps the birth (or even the death) of a long wished for child or a son led the owner of the bottle to undertake a pilgrimage or that perhaps the pilgrimage was made in the hope that the home would be blessed with the birth of a child. Although most pilgrims at this time were men, it was not infrequent for a woman to undertake a pilgrimage at this time or even participate in a crusade. One of the best know cases in the English-speaking world is Margery Kempe whose pilgrimage to several sites in Europe (including Bergen and Danzig) and the Middle East in the early 15th century is well documented.
The rest of the bottle is also highly decorated with floral motifs as well as baskets full of what appear to be fruits and vegetables, further supporting the hypothesis that spring and fertility may be the main theme for the flask. The style of these decorative features share characteristics with folk art that is found amongst peasant objects in Central Europe, further reinforcing its geographic origin in this region.
Please kindly note that these are provisional findings and the details provided are subject to further research.
This post was written by joecollinson