First, a bit about the terminology.
The drinking vessel most associated with Germany is the tankard. A tankard is a beaker with a handle and lid. Without the lid, we’d call it a mug.
In the US, tankards are usually called steins. The word stein in German means “rock”. It comes from the shortening of a German phrase, the most common suggestions being Stein Krug, meaning stone jug or tankard, or Steingut, meaning stone goods.
In German, the word used for a covered mug is Krug.
Tankard is the more general term used by English-speaking scholars, particularly for objects dating from before the end of the nineteenth century. But in general use, stein and tankard are used interchangeably.
And what’s the story behind the cover? The lids on tankards have their roots in health safety. In the 14th century, the Black Death swept through Europe, killing up to half of the population in a few short years. Although the cause of the disease was not understood, attempts to stop the horror led to innovations in sanitation. To keep foreign matter out of beverages, including flying insects, laws were passed in German lands that required a cover for all drinking vessels. A thumb lift was devised in order to make drinking with one hand still possible, and by the time that the laws were no longer necessary and were not enforced, the lid had became an integral part of the design.
The Erb Tankard
This month, we’ll be looking at one of the earliest tankards in the collection. It is called The Erb Tankard because it was made by a famous goldsmith named Kornelius Erb (German, ca. 1560-1618).
Erb worked in Augsburg, which was an important center for fine decorative arts from the 13th century until almost the end of the 18th century. Augburg’s proximity to gold and silver mines meant that there was money to be made—and the town became an economic powerhouse known for its extremely high-quality gold and silver wares. It was the best of the best. Other examples of tankards made at Augsburg can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the V&A in London, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The The Erb Tankard is not your everyday drinking vessel. It was made for a very wealthy patron to keep in his Wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities) or his Kunstkammer (collection of fine art). Although it may have been used, most of the time it would have been proudly on display.
What else does The Erb Tankard tell us about the owner? First of all, he was German. In the 16th century, tankards were made in German-speaking lands in central and northern Europe for drinking beer—ordinary ones would be made in wood, pewter, or stoneware. Whoever owned this was proud of that heritage.
The decoration shows that he was a man of current tastes. Renaissance in style, every surface is ornately decorated, encouraging the viewer to explore it all. It also brings together three important stylistic elements of the period: classical, historical, and religious.
The classical past was a significant influence on the art of the Renaissance. The barrel of The Erb Tankard is covered with an all-over geometric pattern similar to those used in ancient Rome. There’s mythology, too: The handle is made from the body of a griffin, a creature from Greek mythology, and the thumb-lift is a little Bacchus (the god of wine) sitting on a barrel—appropriate for a container for an alcoholic beverage!
In two registers around the tankard are eight portrait heads encircled with laurel wreaths. They depict important rulers of central and northern Europe: Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his wife; the King and Queen of Denmark; the King and Queen of Sweden; and the King and Queen of Poland. This not only proudly displays the owner’s cultural pride, but it also illustrates his knowledge of European history.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, a religious theme was used for the lid. On the top is a plaque that shows Adam and Eve hiding themselves after eating the forbidden fruit; the underside shows their expulsion from Paradise. This tankard warns against the pleasures of earth, even as it celebrates it.
Kornelius Erb pulled much of his imagery from printed sources available in 16th century Germany. We’ve come across one of them before on a blog post about the work of artist Virgil Solis of Nuremberg, Germany, who produced over 2,000 prints and drawings. He is best known for his ornament designs that were published in books for other craftsmen to use in decorative arts and architecture. You can see from this print in the collection of the British Museum how Erb used Solis for the portraits (compare Charles V at the left to his medallion on the tankard). The Adam and Eve scenes came from another German printmaker named Heinrich Aldegrever.
How’s that for luxury in both material and visual interest? Next month we’ll see how the art collecting market, international trade, and technical innovations are nothing new—the same thing happened in Europe during the age of the ceramic known as tin-glaze earthenware!