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Exploring Coconut Migration Patterns:
A Falcon-shaped Standing Cup

Emily Aleev-Snow


Last week, Luisa discussed her work on a sixteenth century gilt-bronze bull figurine she chose for her Object Essay, the first large piece of original research we are expected to produce on the V&A/RCA History of Design course.  When I was trying to decide which object to choose for my own essay, all I knew for sure as I wandered through the V&A was that I was looking for an object whose constituent parts, materials and design ideas – and therefore, its existence as an object – was brought about through global exchange. Turning a corner into the Gilbert Collection galleries, I fell head over heels for this piece, a falcon-shaped standing covered cup, thought to have been made in Ulm, Germany, c. 1600. The body of the cup is made out of a coconut carved with a feather pattern, echoing the chased and engraved feathers of its silver and silver-gilt mount.

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Cup in the form of a falcon, c. 1600, Ulm, Germany. Cast, raised and chased partially gilded silver (parcel-gilt), carved coconut shell and carved semiprecious stones. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.61:1, 2-2008. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This object represents the conflation of two design trends for standing cups of the early modern period: that of a coconut or other exotic wood in a decorative metal mount, popular across Northern Europe – perhaps a more wondrous version of the more common mazer, a cup of turned wood in a metal mount in use from the middle ages;[1] and that of the zoomorphic drinking vessel, prevalent mainly in German-speaking regions.

In my essay, I approached this cup from every angle I could think of, including placing the cup within the intellectual and material contexts of the Kunst-und Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities; possible links to clockwork and automata; German humanism and drinking rituals; and the practice of falconry and the global raptor trade. Right now, however, I will restrict myself to sharing with you some ideas I explored dealing with the cup’s coconut body.[2]

 

A Brief History of the Global Coconut Trade

Coconuts are incredibly versatile and practical; they are used, to name just a few possibilities, as a source of potable water, foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, fiber, fuel, and construction materials,[3] and they have been traded widely for millennia in India, Africa, the Middle East, East Asia and Southeast Asia.

There are two origins of cultivation of the coconut, one centered in Southwest India, and one centered in maritime Southeast Asia. The DNA of each of these two lineages of coconuts is very distinct,[4] and thus preserves a record of human cultivation and migration, voyages of exploration, colonization, and trade.[5]

Coconuts from Southwest India trickled into Europe from as early as the 8th century, and slightly increased in number as regional trade routes strengthened further in the 13th century. Coconuts would be shipped to Aden and then carried overland into Egypt and North Africa, where they would eventually be picked up in Alexandria or Tripoli by Venetian or Genoese traders.[6]

Vasco da Gama’s (c.1469-1524) expedition of 1497-1499 from Portugal to India was, among many other important concerns, also a pivotal moment for the global coconut trade in that there would henceforth be a direct shipping link for coconuts to enter Europe, as well as European-controlled sources of coconuts.[7] The Portuguese cultivated Southwest Indian coconuts on the west coast of Africa and on nearby islands, and it was from Cape Verde that in the 1550s coconuts were sent to be planted in the Caribbean and coastal Brazil. Around that same time, the Spanish brought maritime Southeast Asian coconuts from the Philippines to Mexico.[8]

The two different lineages of coconuts have noticeably contrasting shapes (though there is some debate over the correspondence between DNA and physical morphology), with the Southwest Indian coconuts being more rounded, and the maritime Southeast Asian coconuts more oblong.

A coconut with a more oblong shape, which might indicate a Maritime Southeast Asian lineage.  Cup and cover, 1590, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Coconut mounted with chased and cast silver. Museum no. 2117:1, 2-1855. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A coconut with a more oblong shape, which might indicate a Maritime Southeast Asian lineage.
Cup and cover, 1590, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Coconut mounted with chased and cast silver. Museum no. 2117:1, 2-1855. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A coconut with a more rounded shape, which might indicate a Southwest Indian lineage.  Cup and cover, 1576, Dordrecht, Netherlands. Carved coconut mounted in embossed and carved silver. Museum no. 4893:1, 2-1858. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A coconut with a more rounded shape, which might indicate a Southwest Indian lineage.
Cup and cover, 1576, Dordrecht, Netherlands. Carved coconut mounted in embossed and carved silver. Museum no. 4893:1, 2-1858. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 A reasonable conjecture regarding the falcon coconut cup, based on the rounded shape of its coconut and the c. 1600 dating of its metalwork mounting, is that this piece was made with a Southwest Indian coconut imported by the Portuguese.[9]

 

The Usages and Changing Value of Coconut Cups

Coconuts had long been prized both for sacred use as chalices, reliquaries, and monstrances,[10] and for secular use incorporated into elaborate standing cups and ewers for the treasure collections of rulers and other nobility. The new European-controlled sources of coconuts made them much more financially accessible to gentry and affluent merchants, with the result that while coconuts by the end of the sixteenth century were perhaps no longer quite as “wondrous” as other natural materials in the Kunst- und Wunderkammer, they were more popular than ever for their supposed health benefits and their evocation of the exotic lands to the east. Nonetheless, the coconuts found in wills and inventories are generally the older, pre-1550s coconuts, and so it seems that the more recently imported coconuts were not considered to be quite as special as their older counterparts.[11]

Another idea as to why the coconut, as a physical form, might have been considered desirable as a drinking vessel may be tied to ancient German drinking practices. There is a close linguistic connection in German between heads and drinking vessels, as in medieval German the same word, Kopf, was used to mean both a head and a drinking vessel. This is no coincidence, harking back to the ancient German tribal practice of drinking from skulls;[12] a ritual, not so dissimilar to the ancient drink of blood brotherhood, whereby the drinker might take on the essence of the skull’s former owner. This tradition was integrated into the German practice of Christianity from as early as the sixth century, as drinking from the skulls of saints became a sacred ritual in which the healing powers of the saint were absorbed by the true believer; a ritual which, incredibly, continued in some areas of southern Germany until the late eighteenth century.[13] Many secular cups continued to be fashioned in a rounded shape evocative of a skull, whether or not they were actually overt portrayals of heads – of which there continued to be many – up through the mid-seventeenth century, often with a coconut, an ostrich egg, or other round natural material acting as a substitute for a skull. Outside of religious traditions, overt portrayals of heads, particularly the heads of fools, began to be frowned upon by social commentators in the sixteenth century as signs of moral decadence,[14] but the evocative rounded shape, such as that of the falcon coconut cup, remained a common one for drinking vessels in the German-speaking regions throughout the early modern period.

Belief persisted in early modern Europe in a great variety of health-giving properties attributed to coconuts; not the least of which was protection against poisoning, which makes its use in covered standing cups such as the falcon coconut cup all the more apt,[15] as the cups themselves were devised as a deterrent against poisoning. It was the established custom for a cupbearer to pour liquid into a vessel while in plain view and then replace the lid, which was only to be removed by the drinker.[16]

However, while the shape of the coconut would naturally suggest that it be used as a vessel to hold liquid, in fact the acidic nature of the wine and other alcoholic beverages prevalent in Northern Europe at this time would have been very corrosive to the coconut shell. Though many elaborate cups were intended simply as showpieces, a surprising number were in fact used, if not regularly then at least for certain ceremonial or socially circumscribed situations.[17] In order to prevent damage to the inside of such a cup, the inside of the coconut would need to be coated with a turpentine-based resin, as was most often the case; or, more expensively, a gilded silver lining might be employed.[18] This particular cup is not lined with gilded silver, but the inside of the coconut does contain a residue that could possibly be the remnants of a resin lining.

As for the possible usages to which the falcon coconut cup may have been put, it is important to note that “wine” in the sixteenth century was commonly used as a generic descriptive term for alcoholic beverages,[19] and so the “wine” discussed by contemporary commentators could actually be beer, mead, brandy, aqua vitae, or any number of the distilled aromatic cordials that were extremely popular at that time.[20]

In terms of capacity, the falcon coconut cup does not hold a standard measure of beer or wine,[21] therefore it can be speculated that it may have served a special purpose as part of a ceremony involving drinking, perhaps as a serving vessel or to contain distilled spirits; or as part of a drinking game.

On a final – lighter – note, after all that talk of botany and drinking out of skulls and such, I do think it is important to acknowledge the sense of humor inherent in this object. The falcon’s proud, chubby coconut body, deadpan expression, and little flapping wings never fail to give me a lift whenever I visit it in the gallery (which is often, as I’m still head over heels in love with it). Though it might be my particular temporally- and culturally contingent subjectivity that causes me to find the falcon coconut cup frankly funny, I think it is safe to assume that, whatever its intended use, this cup was almost certainly a part of activities involving sociability and good cheer.

Cup in the form of a falcon, c. 1600, Ulm, Germany. Cast, raised and chased partially gilded silver (parcel-gilt), carved coconut shell and carved semiprecious stones. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.61:1, 2-2008. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Cup in the form of a falcon, c. 1600, Ulm, Germany. Cast, raised and chased partially gilded silver (parcel-gilt), carved coconut shell and carved semiprecious stones. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.61:1, 2-2008. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.



[1] Glanville, Philippa, Silver in Tudor and Early Stewart England: A Social History and Catalogue of the National Collection 1480-1660. (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1990), p. 225.

[2] I am deeply indebted to Hugh Harries for helping me to learn about this extremely complex and in many ways controversial field.

[3] B. F. Gunn, L. Baudouin, and K.M. Olsen, Independent origins of cultivated coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) in the Old World Tropics, (PLoS ONE 6: e21143, 2011).

[4] B. F. Gunn, L. Baudouin, and K.M. Olsen, Independent origins of cultivated coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) in the Old World Tropics, (PLoS ONE 6: e21143, 2011).

[5] Diana Lutz, Deep History of Coconuts Decoded, (Washington University in St. Louis Newsroom, http://news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/22438.aspx, 24 June, 2011).

[6] Rolf Fritz, Die Gefäße aus Kokosnuß in Mitteleuropa: 1250-1800, (Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1983, pp. 9-13.

[7] Hugh Harries, applied botanist, personal correspondence, November 2012.

[8] Hugh Harries, applied botanist, personal correspondence, November 2012.

[9] Hugh Harries, applied botanist, personal correspondence, November 2012.

[10] Martin Kemp, ‘”Wrought by No Artist’s Hand”: The Natural, the Artificial, the Exotic, and the Scientific in Some Artifacts from the Renaissance’ in Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America 1450-1650 ed. by Claire Farago, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 181.

[11] Attempting to assess the decline in value of coconut standing cups can be difficult. It is clear from inventories that although wood or nuts were weighed with their mounts, they were not considered worth their weight in silver and thought to be less valuable than mother of pearl or crystal. However, there are many examples of standing cups in which a broken or lost coconut was replaced with a new coconut or with silver rather than being discarded, which speaks to the high value, or at least the deep attachment, that still remained for these objects.

Philippa Glanville, Silver in Tudor and Early Stewart England: A Social History and Catalogue of the National Collection 1480-1660. (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1990), pp. 80-81, 313, 325.

[12] Lorenz Seelig, ‘Christoph Jamnitzer’s ‘Moor’s Head’: a Late Renaissance Drinking Vessel’ in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, ed. by T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005), p. 191.

Thank you to Marta Ajmar, for pointing me in the direction of this idea and this book.

[13] Lorenz Seelig, ‘Christoph Jamnitzer’s ‘Moor’s Head’: a Late Renaissance Drinking Vessel’ in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, ed. by T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005), p. 191.

[14] Lorenz Seelig, ‘Christoph Jamnitzer’s ‘Moor’s Head’: a Late Renaissance Drinking Vessel’ in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, ed. by T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005), p. 193.

[15] Angela McShane, personal conversation, 5 December 2012.

[16] Albala, Ken. The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe. (Urbana; Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), p.110.

[17] Martin Kemp, ‘”Wrought by No Artist’s Hand”: The Natural, the Artificial, the Exotic, and the Scientific in Some Artifacts from the Renaissance’ in Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America 1450-1650 ed. by Claire Farago, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 186.

[18] Rolf Fritz, Die Gefäße aus Kokosnuß in Mitteleuropa: 1250-1800, (Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1983, p. 45.

[19] B. Ann Tlusty, Bacchus and Civil Order: The Culture of Drink in Early Modern Germany, (Charlottesville; London: University Press of Virginia, 2001), p. 70.

[20] Conrad Gesner, the renowned natural historian and author of the monumental Historiae Animalium, published a wildly popular book of recipes for cordials, De remediis secretis, under a pseudonym.

Albala, Ken, The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe. (Urbana; Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), pp. 105-106.

[21] Angela McShane, personal conversation, 5 December 2012.

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Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A. If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: objectoftheweek@gmail.com

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Emily Aleev-Snow –

Emily graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 2004 with a BA in East Asian Studies, with a particular focus on Edo Period Japan. After joining the Asian strand of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA, she has broadened the scope of her interests to a more global focus, asking questions about what objects can tell us about the sharing of knowledge across geographies. For her dissertation, Emily will be exploring the role of the practice of falconry as a medium of global exchange in the Early Modern period through its material culture.

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© Emily Aleev-Snow 2014. All Rights Reserved

One thought on “Exploring Coconut Migration Patterns:
A Falcon-shaped Standing Cup”

  1. Thank you for this!
    It is so difficult to find English language sources on coconut cups. I don’t read German and Frits being practically the only scholarly source of information has been incredibly frustrating. I actually found this article searching Twitter. The wonders of the internet.

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