Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pomanders: a whiff of history

In honor of my attempt at pomanders (below, with our initials), a look at their history through the collections of some of my favorite museums:

Pomander (from Fr. pomme d'ambre), a small metal container, usually silver or gold, designed to hold aromatic spices or herbs, such as ambergirs (whence the name), musk, or civit, and worn suspended from the neck or girdle as protection against infection and noxious odors. As fashionable jewelry in the late Middle Ages, pomanders were luxury objects, and often embellished with gems or enamelwork. In the late 16th-century, the traditional spherical shape was divided into segments, like those of an orange, in order to accommodate a variety of exotic powdered spices such as mace, nutmeg or cinnamon (spices that were more valuable than precious stones). Pomanders were replaced in the 18th and 19th centuries by vinaigrettes, and in the 20th century by the clove-studded citrus, still popular today.

Not just for the ladies: Portrait of a Man from the Weinsberg Family, Bartholomaus the Elder,  c. 1538-39, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

Portrait of a Young Woman from the Slosgin Family of Cologne, Barthel Bruyn the Younger, 1557, Metropolitan Museum

Lady with a Pomander, Wenceslas Hollar, 1640, at the University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

A 16th-century gold and pearl (some missing) pomander, made in England and, incredibly, dug up from the Thames River in the 19th century, The British Museum

A 17th-century silver pomander from Italy, Metropolitan Museum

A mid-17th-century example with enameled decoration, from either Germany or the Netherlands, Art Institute of Chicago

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