The Fall of Man (with holes in)
All antiquers long for that fabled "OMG! moment." I had one recently, not a sudden flash but a slower dawning.
I'd been given the opportunity to buy an alms dish - actually two, but here I want to focus on one of them.
I almost passed on it: At first glance it looked old, worn and beaten up, because that's what it was - old, worn and beaten up. But my gut contradicted my eye: it thought the dish might be something special. I bought both. As it turned out, my gut was a better judge than my eye.
Back home, I turned to Tiedemann, who has written the "bible" on Nuremberg Alms Dishes. At the end of the book he gives a full page to each of 10 "Selected Specimens." The fifth is my alms dish. His is less worn, but the depiction of Adam and Eve is struck from the same die.
It is the earliest alms dish depicting the Fall of Man. To the left of Adam's head is a banner inscribed "ano 1487" in Gothic numerals (I can't read Gothic numerals, but Tiedemann can, and that's what he says it says.)
Tiedemann points out, "[The] figures exhibit slender legs and hide their genitals behind a bunch of leaves instead of a fig leaf - a typical late Gothic iconography."
The Gothic was a northern taste, while the fig leaf, that replaced it, obviously, came from the south.
Another early feature of the dish is the Serpent depicted as a woman wearing a crown - a motif that, we assume, leaves the viewer in no doubt that the Fall of Man was engineered by two women!
John Bonnell (1917) notes that the serpent in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (painted between 1508 and 1512) is also a woman: the Nuremberg "basin beaters"
and Leonardo da Vinci obviously shared the same source. And that source, Bonnell concludes, was the mystery plays performed by town guilds throughout Europe from the thirteenth century on. In many of them, the serpent was enacted by a man dressed as a woman. The motif, in drama, paint or brass is purely Gothic and is rarely found after 1550.
The top of the wall surrounding the Garden of Eden and the medieval gatehouse are both more or less clearly defined.
A band of text encircles the central scene. It is repeated four times and reads ICH WART DER IN FRID G ["I was in peace."] Not all the dishes struck from this die include this band, and some, like ours, have a second band around it.
Our dish has a wider rim than Tiedemann's but both have the booge decorated in the same way and both rims are decorated with (different) punches.
Tiedemann also reproduces a page from a block book, Biblia Paupurum, printed in Nordlingen, Bavaria, c. 1470, that could well have provided a model for the die maker.
Steel dies were used for the raised decorations on Nuremberg dishes. A die is the "female" or "negative" of the image to be produced.
The dish was placed upside down upon the die and was carefully hammered into its hollows. According to Tiedemann, this is often the source of makers' errors, especially with the early dishes. If the sheet brass were too thin, hammering it into the deeper hollows of the die could cause weak spots or even holes. These were repaired by the maker with thin pieces of brass held in place by a brazing alloy.
This dish has a number of these holes. In most of them the repairs have dropped out, but the one on Adam's hip remains intact. (The other dish has more holes but they all retain the original maker's repairs.)
(The booge on both dishes is decorated with a "soft" motif that was hammered into pitch, not into a steel die.)
OK: It's worn, it's not the most beautiful, but it's very significant and I'm very pleased that I bought it.
For more info and pictures of both, please visit www.fiskeandfreeman.com (Brass and Copper)
Klaus Tiedemann, Nurnberger Beckenschlagerschusseln, Nuremberg Alms Dishes, Second, Enlarged Edition, every motif presented. J.H. Roll, Dettelbach, 2018 (in German with some English translation.)
John K. Bonnell, "The Serpent with a Human Head in Art and in Mystery Play," American Journal of Archaeology, July-Sept, 1917