The Wallace Collection

Armorial Pilgrim Flask, Venice, c.1523-6
Detail showing von Rappoltstein's arms
Detail showing von Rappoltstein's arms
Treasure of the Month - April 2011

Armorial Pilgrim Flask, Venice, c.1523-6

Fine Venetian glassware was coveted in Europe and beyond during the Renaissance. This magnificent flask was commissioned for a prestigious Germanic client. It is enamelled with the arms of Christof Philipp von Lichtenstein (c. 1495–1547) and his father-in-law, Wilhelm von Rappoltstein (1468–1547). It has the rare distinction amongst Venetian Renaissance glasses of being quite precisely dated, for Christof Philipp’s arms are shown as borne between 16 August 1523 and 1526. It is also unusual in having a different coat of arms depicted on either side of the body. The flask was probably commissioned belatedly to commemorate Lichtenstein’s marriage to von Rappoltstein’s daughter Margarethe. They married in 1516, the year in which von Rappoltstein was elected a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece, whose emblem is suspended from his coat of arms.

Made on the island of Murano, Venetian glassware was highly prized for the outstanding quality of its material, workmanship and decoration. Virtually colourless glass, resembling rock crystal, was known as cristallo. Enamelled and gilt decoration was the height of fashion in the early years of the sixteenth century. Gold leaf was applied cold and often finely incised before being fired. The enamels for von Rappoltstein’s arms were smudged before firing. This came about because after the enamels had been painted, the flask was laid on its side to reheat gradually prior to being reattached to the pontil so that the enamels could be fired. As the flask was being reattached to the pontil, it was moved against the surface it was resting on, smudging the enamels in the most convex area.

When this flask was made, the Venetian glass trade with Germany had been established for more than two hundred years. Exports for the German-speaking market was managed via the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, the organization that was central to the strong German trading presence in Venice. Glass vessels of various types were commissioned from Venetian glassmakers by German families during the late fifteenth and the early decades of the sixteenth century.

Pilgrim flasks were so named because they took their inspiration from the portable bottles of similar shape in leather or metal, used by travellers such as pilgrims. On portable flasks, the paired suspension loops would have been threaded with cord or chain for carrying, but they do not serve a practical purpose here. Perhaps the interlaced scrolls on the sides of this flask are intended to suggest tasselled cords. Silver models provided the prototype for the flasks in glass and maiolica that were made from the latter part of the fifteenth century. Large glass flasks were impractical for travel. However, with its almost flat, broad sides, ideally suited to the prominent display of a coat of arms, the pilgrim flask was the perfect vehicle to promote a host’s status during formal dining. Often used in pairs, for red and white wine or water and wine, they would have been placed on a credenza or tiered buffet.

Gallery Talks

Monday 11 and Tuesday 26 April at 1pm with Suzanne Higgott.

Further Reading

  • Attilia Dorigato, Murano Island of Glass, Verona, 2003
  • Luke Syson and Dora Thornton, Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy, London, 2001

© Trustees of the Wallace Collection 2011.
Text by Suzanne Higgott.
Object number: XXVB95