Piece of the Month XI

Dada a extensão deste artigo, achei por bem publicar as versões inglesa e portuguesa em separado. Para a versão portuguesa, cliquem aqui.

PIECE OF THE MONTH XI – NEF/NAVICULA

Collection: National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon (inv. 949 Our)

Dates: Second half of the 15th century

Provenance: Unknown – Barros e Sá legacy

Local of Production: Portugal

Dimensions: ca. 18,6 cm in length × 10,8 cm in height

Weight: Unknown

Materials: Silver

Description: A small but highly detailed carrack-shaped nef/navicula, made of repoussé, embossed, and cast silver. It is supported by a simple foot in plain silver, with engraving around the bottom.

Back of the nef/navicula.The aftercastle opens up so that contents can be inserted inside. Photo © DGPC/ADF, Luis Pessoa

For the medieval upper classes, meals went far beyond food and nourishment. Meals were public displays of one’s wealth, prestige and power, in which the mundane act of feeding oneself disappeared into the background of pageantry and of spectacle [1]. One of the more extravagant items found on the medieval high table was the nef (lit. “ship”, in French), a lavishly decorated vessel and/or table ornament in the shape of a ship. These ships, made of silver, gold, and precious materials, were not just decorative, but could be used for a variety of purposes: drinking vessels, holding spices or salt, but also storage spaces for cutlery and even dishes and cups [2]. The Infanta D. Beatriz of Portugal’s 1507 will included one ‘naveta de prata toda dourada com sua colher presa por huma cadea, que tem hum alefante na popa, e na proa tem huma cabeça de serpe‘ [3]. By the 16th century, the nefs of kings and emperors could even feature such additions as mechanical clocks, or small automatons [4]. Little wonder then, that nefs were highly prized items, frequently exchanged as tokens of friendship and reworked to be regifted [5].

Nefs weren’t just for the high and mighty. The not-so-high and less-than-mighty also had their simple nefs, much plainer of course, usually performing the same function as a salt cellar as a symbol of prestige at the table. Nefs were also usually set before particularly esteemed guests, to mark a place of honour at the table (much like a cloth of honour).

One of the most well known depictions of sumptuous nefs: the banquet Charles V of France in 1378, including a reenactment of the taking of Jerusalem, Detail from Les Grandes Chroniques de France de Charles V, fol. 473v (ca. 1370-1379).
Profile view of the MNAA nef/navicula.

This example from the MNAA is not presented as a nef but as a navicula, the religious equivalent to the noble nefs, which instead of holding salt or drink held incense to be burnt during Catholic mass, and were carried to the altar by a choir boy. Navicula, which developed alongside the ostentatious table nef [6], were such a popular design for incense-holders that they can be found across the globe, brought by Iberian missionaries and adapted to local fashions [7].

We don’t know why this particular specimen is classed as a navicula instead of a nef, but in its simplicity it could well have been both. As usual with several Portuguese pieces, little to no information exists regarding its provenance. Whatever it is, this small but beautiful piece shows us not only a glimpse into the European mindset of the late 15th century, fascinated with distant voyages and seafaring vessels [8], but also the artistry of Portuguese smiths, and the wealth of Portuguese patrons, at a time when the maritime routes and conquests were beginning to yield high dividends for the realm. It is also a fantastic study tool for researching shipbuilding techniques, due to its level of detail.

[1] Correia de Sousa, L. e Miranda, M. (2011). “A «mesa do rei» como metáfora do poder”. In Buescu, A. and Felismino, D., A Mesa dos Reis de Portugal: Ofícios, consumos, cerimónias e representações (séculos XIII-XVIII). Lisboa: Círculo de Leitores, pp. 382-383.

[2] Lightbown, R. (1978). Secular Goldsmith’s Work in Medieval France: A History. London: Society of Antiquaries of London, p. 31.

[3] ‘One nef of gilt silver with its spoon fastened by a chain, with an elephant on the stern and a wyvenr’s head on the prow’ [my own translation]. Rebello de Andrade, M. (2011). “Artes de mesa e cerimoniais régios na corte do século XVI. Uma viagem através de obras de arte da ouriversaria nacional”. In Buescu, A. and Felismino, D., op. cit., p. 138.

[4] Collins, J., and Martin, M. (2017). “Early Modern Incense Boats: Commerce, Christianity, and Cultural Exchange”. In Götler, C. and Mochizuki, M. (Eds.). The Nomadic Object: The Challenge of World for Early Modern Religious Art. Leiden: Brill, p. 520.

[5] Idem, p. 519.

[6] Oman, C. (1963). Medieval Silver Nefs. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

[7] Collins, J., and Martin, M. (2017), op. cit.

[8] Collins, J., and Martin, M. (2017), op. cit., pp. 523-526.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Buescu, A. and Felismino, D. (2011). A Mesa dos Reis de Portugal: Ofícios, consumos, cerimónias e representações (séculos XIII-XVIII). Lisboa: Círculo de Leitores

Collins, J., and Martin, M. (2017). “Early Modern Incense Boats: Commerce, Christianity, and Cultural Exchange”. In Götler, C. and Mochizuki, M. (Eds.). The Nomadic Object: The Challenge of World for Early Modern Religious Art. Leiden: Brill, pp. 513–546.

Lightbown, R. (1978). Secular Goldsmith’s Work in Medieval France: A History. London: Society of Antiquaries of London

Oman, C. (1963). Medieval Silver Nefs. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Orey, L. (1984). A Ourivesaria Portuguesa no Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. Lisboa: MNAA

VISUAL SOURCES

Les Grandes Chroniques de France de Charles V (ca. 1370-1379). Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, BNF Français 2813

One thought on “Piece of the Month XI

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