Monday, January 28, 2008

A Matter of Taste: Ceramics and Culinary Connections

Assorted Apothecary jars in the collection

As I said in a recent post I went on this new tour, A Matter of Taste: Ceramics and Culinary Connections at the Koerner Ceramic Gallery at the Museum of Anthropology.

A recent addition to the tours at the Museum, it was led by a docent, Arlee and first of all she talked about Walter C. Koerner, his connection as a benefactor to the university and the museum. I was familiar with the late Mr Koerner as I saw him on occasion over the years at various university functions and for the last 18 years of my pharmacy career I went to work in the Koerner Pavilion, which was the Acute Care building of the hospital at the University.

The ceramics housed at the museum were Mr Koerner's personal collections, which started when he was a young boy in his native land, formerly Moravia but later part of Czechoslovakia. and there are over 600 pieces covering the period from 1500 to 1900. It was decided that instead of just talking about the bald facts known of the objects this tour should highlight the social history of some of the items, namely those related to food. So Arlee began to talk about food habits and how they reflect the times and fit with the cultural context. In no way was this talk exhaustive and I report it just as it occurred.

In the Middle Ages and beyond, food was medicine and medicine was food. Medical practice often consisted of trying to balance in the body, often by means of diet, the four humours which are shown in the chart below from this article.

Humour Season Element Organ Qualities Ancient name Modern MBTI Ancient characteristics
Blood spring air liver warm & moist sanguine artisan SP courageous, hopeful, amorous
Yellow bile summer fire gall bladder warm & dry choleric guardian SJ easily angered, bad tempered
Black bile autumn earth spleen cold & dry melancholic rational NT despondent, sleepless, irritable
Phlegm winter water brain/lungs cold & moist phlegmatic idealist NF calm, unemotional

So the first ceramics we looked at were apothecary jars of different types. All were made of tin-glazed earthenware and depending where they originated they were called faience, majolica or deftware. Some of the jars were actually for liquids and had spouts for pouring while others were for dry ingredients or salves. Some had the names of the contents incorporated into the design of the glaze. Usually the glaze was white to duplicate china which was very rare and expensive and often the decoration had an Eastern flavour. As an aside, apothecary jars are still produced today as decorative accessories for pharmacies and homes. Most of the ones I have seen in pharmacies over my career were made of glass which of course does not protect the contents from light so these earthenware ones were superior in that aspect.

A rather elaborate salt dish

There were several attractive salt dishes or salt cellars in the collection and this one was quite charming. Because salt was so expensive the actual container part for the salt is small but the overall dish is large and ornate to represent the importance of salt. Because salt was obtained from the sea as well as mines the decorative images on the cellar were often images or fish or sea gods.

During the Middle Ages when salt was a valuable commodity, salt would be kept on the table in elaborate metal or glass dishes as a status symbol.

Last year I read an interesting 400 plus page book called Salt: a world history, by Mark Kurlansky which certainly told me more than I ever wanted to know on this topic. Unfortunately it was a bit tedious at times but I still enjoyed it on the whole. I think most people know that the word salary is derived from the days when people were paid for work in salt and of course to sit above or below the salt designated one's importance to the host. These two facts were the only two related on this tour.

A smaller but more decorated salt dish

Next time we'll look at a few tankards. As I said snippets of fact were dropped rather randomly on this tour and I apologize for the fact that they are a bit disorganized and not at all comprehensive. They did provide a suggested reading list both on ceramics and food related topics and there is always google.


Heart of Rachel said...

Those are beautiful ceramics. I admire the craftsmanship. Thanks for sharing an interesting background about ceramics.

Ellee Seymour said...

There are some family ceramics with my father's name in the museum where my family live, they are light brown with white writing on and big handles, similar to the ones in the pic. I'm not sure of their value.

Chervil said...

What a coincidence - I just spent the morning at our local potter's studio looking at his newest creations. I very much like ceramics, particularly things that are actually used or have been in use before. Thanks for sharing your experience on the tour and the many interesting photos.

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

The Aristocracy were often bled in the middle ages, in the belief this was good for the body. This is also the origin of the bizarre treatment of leeches for so many illnesses.

Sean Jeating said...

Again, a pleasure for one's eyes. - And the first part of the title made me smile, as I remembered visiting an exhibition of artful crafted ceramic chamber pots, which had been a loan made by the Nachttopf Museum (Chamberpot Museum) in Munich. :)

Tai said...

I LOVE "Salt"...and I've read most of Kurlansky's books now. "Choice Cuts" was a fun read, even if he just edited it.

Josie said...

JMB, that salt dish is exquisite. All my favorite colors as well. I will have to check out that exhibit. It looks really interesting.

My mother had a small collection of little salt cellars, with the tiny silver spoons. She didn't like salt shakers.

Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

Walter C. Koerner, his connection as a benefactor to the university and the museum. I was familiar with the late Mr Koerner as I saw him on occasion over the years at various university functions ...

But JMB - he's a man and we can't have any of them praised here!

Pear tree cottage! said...

Ceramics & china they are wonderful to collect and bveutiful to see at the many museums around the world.

While not as adorable as the salt cellers you show here I have been lucky enought o have been able to show my collection of Vintage china at the very impressive Melbourne Museum here in Australia.

I have enjoyed very much visiting you here at your blog today.


jams o donnell said...

That is a beautiful collection.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Fabulous post. I would love to have been on that tour! I am fascinted by salt cellars so was interested to see these. And the last picture looks veryn much like Sicilian pottery! Looking forward to the next post about this tour.

jmb said...

Hi Rachel,
I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Have a great week.
Hi Ellee,
That must be very special for you when you go to visit. Did he loan them to the museum?
Hi Chervil,
I think everyone likes pottery and ceramics. Usually the glazes are so interesting and often the shapes.
Hi Crushed,
Bleeding was a very strange practice wasn't it? The use of leeches in modern medicine is amazing but frankly it creeps me out for I hate them.
Hi Sean,
A whole museum of chamberpots? I'll bet some of them were very beautiful. Munich is one of my favourite cities but I haven't been there in years.
Hi Tai,
I thought Salt would have been better edited down somewhat but there was another book of his that looked interesting as well.
Hi Josie,
The salt shaker is a quite recent invention. I suppose it is a better distributor but the little dishes are wonderfully attractive.
Hi James,
I don't know how I have a reputation with you as a man hater when I am just a moderate feminist. Walter Koerner was a wonderfully philanthropic person.
Hi Pear Tree Cottage,
Thank you for dropping by and telling me about your collection. I visited you today too.
Hi Jams,
It is a great collection and I've been before but this was the first time with a guide and from this point of view.
I'm glad you are enjoying this series. It's just a taste of the collection really.

Thanks to all of you for visiting and commenting.