At first glance, the Museum’s stunning Nautilus Cup looks like an impractical way to drink. Tankards and beakers, which are also on display in the Museum’s Gallery #2, make sensible drinking vessels. In comparison the nautilus cup, a chambered nautilus shell mounted with elaborate metal work, perhaps could function as a drinking vessel, but seems more convincing as an aesthetic object.
Because it is gorgeous.
Would anyone use this stunning object to serve beverages? If not, why would anyone have this kind of odd-shaped cup? What did it mean?
In directly combing man’s art with God’s nature, a nautilus cup was the type of treasure that would have been housed in a Renaissance Wunderkammer.
Wunderkammer were privately-owned collections that are considered the predecessor of the modern museum. German for “room of wonder” or “cabinet of curiosities,” Wunderkammer developed in mid-16th-century Europe and celebrated man-made arts and also natural arts, with minerals, ivory, ostrich eggs, coconut shells, nautilus shells, and other exotic objects.
The Museum’s own American Galleries on the Lower Level are installed as a type of Wunderkammer.
Some noblemen commissioned pieces of furniture that displayed smaller collections of specimens. One example is the Augsburg Cabinet, which you can explore in this interactive site by the J. Paul Getty Museum.
You can see the creative blending of nature and art below, in the 1655 print of the cabinet of curiosities compiled by Ole Worm, a Danish physician and scholar. (The term “cabinet” was originally used in the way we use the word “room.”)
The Renaissance and Baroque period was the Age of Exploration in Western Europe, when things from foreign lands held great fascination and spurned the imagination. Shells from the chambered nautilus are a perfect example, since they come from a sea creature that lives in the Pacific and Indian oceans. (The people of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean use nautilus shells as every day drinking cups.) When the outer skin is removed, the shell shines magically, and when cut in half, the construction is mysteriously mathematical. The shells, in fact, were believed to have special powers and reflect the order of the universe.
To enhance a prized shell, a goldsmith would add stunning and protective mounts of gilt bronze, copper, silver, and precious and semiprecious gems.
Other examples of Nautilus Cups are in the British Museum (which has a turtle base just like Milwaukee’s); The Royal Collection; the Los Angeles County of Museum of Art; the Hermitage; the Victoria and Albert Museum; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
As the shells come from the sea (the word nautilus itself comes from the word for “boat” or “sailor” in Greek), it is appropriate that the figures on the Milwaukee Art Museum’s mount relate to water, including gods from the Classical past so important during the Renaissance.
See the shells, sea monsters, turtles, and snails:
From the top we have Poseidon, god of water (missing his trident) astride a sea-monster with glowing red jeweled eyes. Together they ride a wave up over the curve of the pink shell, a great aesthetic combination of form and subject matter.
Below, a charming snail sits at the center of the shell. In the lower part of the shell a tritoness (a sea goddess very much like a mermaid) blows her conch shell.
The stem of the cup is a figure of Hercules, leaning on his club and wearing his lion skin cloak, who struggles to hold up the cup while balancing on another marine creature, the turtle. The turtle’s head, legs, and tail even move!
Nautilus cups were often used in still life paintings because they were exotic and beautiful. The 17th-century Dutch artist Willem Kalf (1622-193) used a nautilus cup in a number of his still life paintings. In his 1662 Still-Life with a Nautilus Cup in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art, Kalf depicted a nautilus cup with other highly esteemed objects such as a Chinese Ming bowl, a wine glass, and a Persian carpet. The combination of metal and shell allowed the artist to experiment with light and shadow, challenging him with metallic reflections and translucent materials. The shell itself appears to be the body of the fantastic sea monster—which, in fact, is the Biblical whale that swallowed Jonah. You can just make out the figure of Jonah trying to avoid the teeth, almost as if he is going to dive into the nautilus for safety.
Today, there is the environmental concern that the chambered nautilus is disappearing due to over-harvesting. Because of its shiny surface, the shell is used in jewelry and other ornamentation, and fisherman are killing them at great rates to fill the demand.
The fascination with the nautilus has not waned in the past 500 years!
The next time you are in the Milwaukee Art Museum galleries, take a moment to look at the Nautilus Cup in person. The lighting makes the shell glow from the inside—and it is easy to think that it really is magical!
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.