A Silver Ostrich, Elias Zorer, German, Augsburg, c. 1600
This majestic-looking ostrich figure was made by the Augsburg silversmith Elias Zorer (master c. 1586 – died 1625). The South German city of Augsburg was a leading centre of goldsmithing in Europe, renowned for the high quality silver objects produced there.
All sorts of human and animal figures were made in the city, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Zorer is known for a few more figures, including a standing cup in the form of a stag in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and a standing cup in the form of peasant woman in the British Museum, London. They are characterised by realistic details and fine chasing, evident here in the treatment of the feathers.
Such statuettes were used not only as decorative objects, for example, table ornaments but often also as extravagant drinking vessels. The neck of this statue was originally detachable, suggesting that it may have been used as a cup, and it was only pinned at a later date. The ostrich was a relatively popular motif for small-scale silver sculptures and more examples have survived in various collections. Sometimes the body was made of an actual ostrich egg to which silver mounts were attached, making it a desirable item for cabinets of curiosities, collections of rare, exotic and ingenious objects.
The Europeans were fascinated by the ostrich, seen as an exotic curiosity, due to its enormous size and inability to fly. It received many different meanings and stood for vices and virtues alike, from voraciousness, as it was believed that ostriches could swallow anything, to justice. The latter symbolism was employed by Raphael (1483-1520) who painted an ostrich as an attribute of Justice in the Sala di Costantino in the Vatican. Interestingly, he was inspired by ancient Egyptian beliefs, according to which the soul’s passage to the underworld was determined by weighing the heart of the dead against an ostrich feather.
The Roman author Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) in his Natural History incorrectly wrote about the ostrich that it can digest anything. This was possibly the source of a popular myth that it can digest metal, and the reason why the bird is commonly depicted holding a horseshoe in its beak. Today, horseshoes are seen as a symbol of good luck. For Sir Richard Wallace the statue had an additional meaning. He acquired it in 1872, one year after Queen Victoria made him a baronet in recognition of his charitable work during the siege of Paris. The coat of arms which he was then granted included an ostrich’s head with a horseshoe (fig. 1).
The base of the statue features engraved coats of arms, recently identified as belonging to leading families of the Swiss Canton of Uri. At this stage of research we still do not know why they commissioned an Augsburg silversmith to produce the figure.
Wednesday 3 and 24 January at 1 pm with Ada de Wit, Assistant Curator.