Coconut cup and cover

Coconut cup and cover

Coconut cup and cover
Coconut shell and gilded silver
Maker's mark AV
Lüneburg, Germany
About 1580
Museum no. Loan:Gilbert.63:1, 2-2008
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

During the medieval period the coconut was a rare and exotic material thought to possess miraculous powers such as revealing the presence of poison or neutralising its effect. They were highly prized and often embellished with mounts, turning them into drinking cups, reliquaries or other vessels. From the 16th century, trade with the New World meant that coconuts became less of a rarity and their reputation for being miraculous was gradually lost, though their natural properties meant they continued to be used for drinking and pouring vessels. The coconut could be left in its natural state, polished, or as in this case, carved.

As this cup is so beautifully decorated, it was probably made for display rather than use. It is carved with scenes of the Passion of Christ, likely to have been derived from early 16th-century German prints. Decorative elements on the mounts have close parallels to works from Nürnberg and Amsterdam, reflecting the internationalism of the Renaissance goldsmith's craft. The finial of the Virgin Mary is a later addition.