Two Altar Cruets

Luisa Coscarelli 


“What do you study? Is that part of art history? Or do you make things?”

These are a few of the typical reactions to the proud statement, “I study History of Design!” And although one slowly gets tired of explaining that, no, it is not art history, and, well, some people on the course have a background in “making”, the question often remains: What exactly do we design historians do?

This column is trying to answer this question in a simple, straightforward format. In this column we will be presenting the protagonists of our studies: OBJECTS! One object every week, to be precise.

Objects are our paintings, books, sculptures, people, and so much more. By looking at them from different perspectives, we design historians aim to tease out why they were made, why they were made in a particular way, what they stand for, how they function – the list could go on endlessly. One could look at objects from the perspectives of materiality, gender, craft, agency, religion, geography, and this list is infinite as well.

This first post is presenting you two altar cruets:

Museum number(s): 4261-1857, 4260-1857

Two altar cruets, possibly Lübeck (Germany) or Bruges (Belgium), ca. 1450-1520, Amber mounted in silver-gilt. Champieve Enamel, V&A Museum number(s): 4261-1857, 4260-1857. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These two altar cruets were part of the celebration of the mass and would have stood on the altar. Hence, they occupy an important place in the ceremony; they are being acted upon in the moment when Jesus Christ is truly present, the Eucharist.

What I am trying to show in the following text is how the materiality and shape of the objects can help us understand how, to the contemporary eye, these cruets must have certainly been connected to religious ceremony and ideas.

Photo 22-09-2013 12 43 09

Image © Luisa Coscarelli, 2013

The foot of each piece consists of a large rim on top of which lie further rings, which slowly taper and end in a ring decorated with vertical engravings. A floral, leaf-like decoration hugs the round, red portion above. Both of the feet were destined to hold a coat-of-arms, only one of which still remains. The material of this lower part is a shiny metal of a pale golden colour, silver gilt, which is repeated again on the top of the cruets.

The second part of the object’s body consists of a round shape. The material is not as shiny as the metal by which it is encased and it is of a reddish colour, which breaks out revealing yellow streaks. The description on the museum label reveals this to be amber.

The necks of the cruets are unadorned and the lids have a tear-like shape. Both are decorated on the top; one with the letter “A” for aqua, the other with the letter “W” for vinum, indicating what they were supposed to contain.[1] A flower-like shape protrudes vertically from each of the lids, helping the user to open them. An s-shaped handle connected to the top flows down the body of the objects.

In Georgius Agricola’s De Natura Fossilium  (1546) the origins, properties and uses of amber are explained. The author extracted the information for this discussion from classical sources such as Pliny’s Natural History (completed ca. 77 C.E.) and Theophrastus’ On Stones (written end of the 4th century B.C.E.). Amber is, according to this text, magnetic, inflammable hence used as incense, and can act as a medical remedy apparently stopping epilepsy, vomiting and curing problems of the throat amongst a wealth of other conditions.[2] In On Stones, Theophrastus mentions the “power of attraction”[3] amber was thought to have; and in the Natural History Pliny explains the pharmaceutical uses of amber and further comments on the value that the tree resin enjoyed in the classical period, being of the same prestige as a precious stone.[4]

These characteristics attributed to amber, seen in relation to Christianity, can provide a pathway for developing a theory on why the material was used in the making of these objects. The material’s “power of attraction”[5] could be taken to reflect the attracting power of faith in Christ, and its medicinal properties could be taken to refer to the healing power of Christ’s blood one is about to receive – a correlation that is reinforced through the red colour of the amber. Finally, its inflammability could refer to the eternal light of Christ, the eternal light of God, or the moment of being enlightened when finding faith.

All of this might seem highly speculative, because after all two of the texts I used were published thousands of years before these cruets were made, and Agricola’s work many years after. The two classical works, however, received attention throughout the Renaissance period along with a wealth of other texts by authors such as Plato and Aristotle. Pliny’s Natural History was even used by a Renaissance historian. For Leonardo Bruni (c. 1370-1444) it functioned as a primary source in compiling information for his History of the Florentine People (pub. 1428).[6] In the early 1430s Bruni also completed the Vita Aristoteles, which speaks to the fact that Aristotle’s and probably also Theophrastus’, (being one of the philosopher’s students), texts were known and read at the time, thus legitimizing my use of them.[7] Since Agricola uses these texts as primary sources, I believe that the use of his work in this article is legitimate as well.

But we are trying to look at objects here and not only texts! While it is unusual for these altar cruets to be made of silver-gilt and amber, rosaries are objects that were frequently and commonly produced from the said material. The roundedness of the cruets’ main body is quite reminiscent of such a rosary bead and to the contemporary eye this correlation would have been obvious.[8]

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Paternoster (Rosary), Germany, 1475-1500, silver, silver-gilt, wood, amber, V&A Museum number: 517-1903. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The unusual nature of the use of amber has been linked back to the place of origin of these objects. In the 14th and 15th centuries both Lübeck and Bruges were major centres beginning to make progress in the carving and turning of amber and production of all sorts of amber-based objects. In this, the objects, through their material, are not only linked to classical and Renaissance ideas about the properties of the amber, but the material also functions to ground the objects in a specific locality that is economically connected and presumably dependant on it.

In the case of these altar cruets the discipline of history of design, encouraging an approach that foregrounds the materiality of the objects, can, as I hope this article has demonstrated, lead to unexpected conclusions about its use, place of production and form. One could delve far further into the depths of these discussions, and surely provide a far more detailed account on the relationship between amber and silver, amber and religion, amber and different localities. This was only scratching the surface.


[1] In preparing the wine for the Eucharist the priest waters it down first, hence there will be one cruet containing the wine and another containing water.

[2] Georgius Agricola, De Natura Fossilium, trans. Mark Chance Bandy, Jean A. Bandy, (New York, NY: The Geological Society of America), 1955

see Book IV pp.61-82

Source online:

[3] Theophrastus, On Stones, trans. Earle R. Caley, John F.C., Richards, (Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University), 1956, p. 112

Source online:

[4] Pliny, Natural History, Book 37 The Natural History of Precious Stones, Chapter 11 Amber: The many falsehoods that have been told about it.

Source online:

[5] Theophrastus, On Stones, 1956, p. 118

[6] Ianziti, Gary, Writing History in Renaissance Italy. Leonardo Bruni and the Uses of the Past, (London, Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 2012, p.108

[7] Ianziti, Gary, Writing History in Renaissance Italy. Leonardo Bruni and the Uses of the Past, (London, Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 2012, p.147

[8] For an example of a rosary that includes amber see image 3.


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!


Luisa Coscarelli –

Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is now interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how immaterial olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.


© Luisa Coscarelli 2013. All Rights Reserved.


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