27 mars 2018

A highly important and magnificent rhinoceros horn 'Dragon' vessel, Holy Roman Empire, late 16th–early 17th century







Lot 3039. A highly important and magnificent rhinoceros horn 'Dragon' vessel, Holy Roman Empire, late 16th–early 17th century; 54.2 cm, 21 3/8  in. Estimate 8,000,000 — 9,000,000 HKD. © Sotheby's 2018

powerfully carved as a mighty winged dragon depicted poised on all four feet, bristling with latent energy, its long scaly body boldly carved in relief with ribbed neck and naturalistic scales, its entire form suffused with impending movement, the splendid long tail depicted curling once and then more gently undulating upwards, tapering to a narrower tip, the ferocious head depicted raised with gaping jaws as an aperture framed by sharp fangs, its staring bulbous eyes fixed in an acute expression, flanked by two prominent wings depicted outstretched in anticipation of impending flight, the grain of the horn of a rich amber-yellow brown.

The outcome of Carbon-14 testing is consistent with the dating of this lot.  

ProvenanceA European private collection.

A Renaissance Dragon

This extraordinary rhinoceros horn dragon vessel, superbly carved as a mighty beast poised and braced for attack, is a highly important relic of the European Renaissance. Emanating from the midst of the Holy Roman Empire, it would have been a truly opulent and exceptionally luxurious item created under royal patronage, or possibly commissioned for the ‘cabinet d’amateur’ of a great collector. It is extremely rare, with no other comparable example known. However, close comparison with stylistically similar works of art of the period enables it to be dated to the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century. This is also corroborated by Carbon-14 testing.  

The idiosyncratic style of the dragon clearly relates to two famous object of the period. The first is a rock-crystal vase carved in the form of a flying dragon in the Prado, Madrid (fig. 1), illustrated in Arbeteta Mira, Letizia, 'Taller de los Sarachi. Vaso en forma de dragón o 'caquesseitão' En:, Arte transparente. La talla del cristal en el Renacimiento milanés., Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2015, pp. 132-135 n.17. Created in Milan at the workshop of the Miseroni, possibly by Gasparo Miseroni (act. 1550-1570), it was an object of the uttermost luxury, created for the wealthiest of patrons. The form of the rock-crystal dragon, with its long winding neck and powerful winged and scaly body, matches that on the current vessel. In itself, it would have been a highly coveted item. The value of the rock-crystal itself would have been extremely high, as demonstrated by the fact that in Philip II’s (1527-98) will, the values for several of his carved rock-crystal objects greatly exceeded that of paintings by Titian, Bosch and Alonso Sánchez Coello. Such luxury items were clearly created for the highest ranking and wealthiest individuals.


Workshop of the Sarachi, Rock crystal vase in the shape of a dragon or ‘’aquesseitão’’, c. 1626 ©Museo Nacional del Prado

The value of the rock-crystal, however would pale in comparison to the rare imported rhinoceros horn utilised to create the current dragon. It would have been a highly prized commodity, extremely difficult to procure. Like the rock-crystal dragon, the current object would probably have been originally mounted with elaborate gold or silver mounts, and embellished with enamelling, pearls and precious stones. It would also have had a complex locking mechanism using the tongue, possibly in red to depict fire. It would have been an object literally fit for an emperor.

The specific style of carving of the current dragon is very closely related to the jasper dragon head on a chalcedony pitcher dated to 1608 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (fig. 2), created by Ottavio Miseroni (1567-1624). The powerfully carved dragon spout carved and signed 1608 by Paulus van Vianen (1570-1613) is of the exact same carving style as that of the current vessel.


Ottavio Miseroni (1567-1624), Jasper dragon on a chalcedony pitcher 1608, Collection of Kunthistorisches Museum, inventory no. KK 1866 © KHM-Museumsverband

Rhinoceros horns had long been venerated in China as possessing magical and medicinal properties, but in 16th century Europe the rhinoceros was already creating a mythology of itself. The famous woodcut print of a rhinoceros by Albrecht Dürer, created in 1515, was extremely popular throughout Europe and had a huge cultural impact. Sultan Muzaffar Shah II, ruler of Cambay (modern Gujarat), had presented the beast as a diplomatic gift to Afonso de Albuquerque, governor of Portuguese India, who then forwarded it to King Manuel I of Portugal. This was the first living rhinoceros that had been seen in Europe since Roman times. It created a huge stir, inspiring stonemasons to complete the Manueline Belem Tower, then under construction, with rhinoceros horn heads as gargoyles. A sculpture of a rhinoceros based on Dürer's image was placed at the base of an obelisk placed in front of the Church of the Sepulchre in the rue Saint-Denis in Paris in 1549 for the royal entry welcoming the arrival of the new King of France, Henry II.

News had spread throughout Europe of the appearance of this near-mythical animal, which to European thinkers and artists in the context of the Renaissance, was akin to a piece of classical antiquity that had been rediscovered, like an ancient statue, and much attention was focused on accounts by Roman writers such as Pliny of the observances of rhinoceros behaviour in Roman times.

The first written evidence of Asian rhinoceros horn vessels being brought to Europe is between 1584 and 1586, when Japanese Christians visiting Europe presented a ‘vessel made of rhinoceros-bone, ornamented with silver’ to the Governor of Portugal.  Rhinoceros horn was venerated for its medicinal properties in Europe. According to an inventory compiled between 1607 and 1611, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) had a total of thirteen ‘rhinoceros horn vessels’, most of which were mounted in gold. The value of the lavish gold used would have been little in comparison to the value of the treasured horn itself. Rudolf is also recorded as having presenting horns to his mother to help her combat depression. Clearly, the noble or wealthy individual who commissioned an object of this lavish size created of this venerated material would have had in mind its beneficial properties. The armorial bearings of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London, created in 1617 and later emblazoned at the entrance to Chelsea Physic Garden, dedicated to the science of healing, depict an Asian rhinoceros derived from Durer’s print. Clearly, by the early 16th century the notion of rhinoceros horn as a potent medicine, a treatment for fever and other ailments, had already become widespread, as was the belief that rhinoceros horn vessels could protect against poison. These all point to why such a luxurious vessel as this would have been created.  

In contrast to China, where the dragon is a benevolent force, the highest-ranking animal in the zodiac, emblematic of the power and authority of the emperor, dragons in the European tradition are traditionally perceived as malevolent beings. Existing in folklore and mythology throughout Europe, they are generally depicted as living in underground caves, rivers or other lairs, frequently with hidden gold treasure. The popular myth of Saint George and the Dragon describes the saint successfully taming and slaying a dragon that had been demanding human sacrifices, including the princess who would have been the next victim. The famous drawing of ‘A Dragon Striking down a Lion’ by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, reveals the dragon in all its wrath. However, the Order of the Dragon, created to defend Europe against the invading Ottoman Turks in the 15th century, looked to harness the uncontrollable wrath and might of the mythical creature to enhance its protective power as a defender against such a strong external threat.

Whatever the precise meaning of the complex iconography on this extraordinary dragon, and for whomsoever it was created, it is clear that this truly opulent vessel, made from the most precious and near-mythical material, was fashioned into a luxury item of truly supernaturally exotic form, as a treasured and talismanic vessel for an emperor or wealthy member of the nobility.

Sotheby's. Curiosity IV. Hong Kong, 02 Apr 2018, 10:30 AM

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