Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Hungarian Silver

About one-third of Europe’s gold production came from Hungary prior to the early sixteenth century, when Spain’s “gold fleet” arrived from the American dominions. Hungary’s economy rested firmly on the land’s rich deposits of salt, copper, silver, and gold—all exploited since antiquity. Hungarians began mining precious metal ores in the eleventh century, and goldsmiths’ patrons often supplied artisans with raw materials obtained from local mines, unlike in most other parts of Europe, where such materials had to be imported or reused from outdated objects.

Skilled immigrants, “the Saxons” from Luxembourg, Flanders, Westphalia, territories with long-standing mining traditions—arrived in Hungary in the thirteenth century. The settlements these newcomers helped to establish near mineral deposits later developed into thriving merchant towns (2010.110.75) with royal privileges.

Hungary emerged as a recognized European force under the rule of King Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458–90). During his reign, the country became one of the most sophisticated cultural centers in early Renaissance Europe. Matthias’ successors, however, were weak and unable to repel the mighty Ottoman empire’s advances into Hungarian territory. The country’s political structure collapsed after the Turkish army won the decisive battle at Mohács in 1526: western Hungary fell under the control of the Catholic Austrian Habsburgs; the central region, with the city of Buda (part of present-day Budapest) as its hub, became an intermittently occupied Ottoman territory; and the eastern principality of Transylvania became a tribute-paying Ottoman province. Visual records testify to the close relations between the Transylvanians and the Ottomans from the second quarter of the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, as do objects from the region, which bear a distinctive Ottoman flavor. Many of the Free Towns located in the area of Transylvania, most of which had earlier embraced the Reformation (2010.110.21), still known by the German name Siebenbürgen (translated literally as “Seven Towns,” present-day Ardeal in Romania), retained their status but were obliged to pay taxes to the Turks.

During the period of economic and political instability that took hold in the early sixteenth century, artisans left war-torn Buda and the surrounding region and moved to two areas of relative calm: Royal Hungary in the northwest and Transylvania in the east. A strong guild system developed in these regions, and many organized workshops flourished by adapting Renaissance and Baroque goldsmiths’ styles and German vessel types to indigenous taste. The princes of Transylvania controlled the guilds and patronized the goldsmiths in the mining towns of Siebenbürgen in particular.

Churches and monasteries comprised the majority of the clientele of Hungarian goldsmiths during the Gothic period. The famous silver-gilt reliquary shrine attributed to Jean de Touyl (French, d. 1349/50), on display at The Cloisters (62.96), was once part of the convent treasury of the Poor Clares of the Order of Saint Francis at Buda, founded by Queen Elizabeth of Hungary in 1334. Embellished with exquisite translucent enamels, this stylish masterpiece from Paris and similar objects from goldsmithing centers throughout western Europe surely would have influenced local artisans, working with colorful filigree enamel in the modo transilvano (2010.109.6), or Transylvanian style, also called Hungarian enamel.

The art of goldsmithing received a major boost from the aristocracy, whose wealthy members commissioned everything from portable silver objects that were easy to hide or transform into coinage, to precious items offered as tokens of friendship or neighborly respect, or that were presented in dowries or as diplomatic gifts. The demands of affluent patrons were satisfied by new forms and designs developed by well-traveled Hungarian artists and by journeymen goldsmiths returning from their obligatory tours of European cultural centers—Venice as well as Paris, Vienna, and especially Augsburg and Nuremberg.

In adapting and innovating, these craftsmen created some forms that seem to be unique to the region. Inspired by far simpler vessels used to feed the invalid, the feeding bowl (2010.110.40) is an elaborate and specialized tool that attracted attention as a show item rather than for its functional purpose. Made nearly 100 years later, restrained, modern-looking wine decanters (2010.110.62a, b) are evidence of metalworkers’ continued quest for novelty. But silver objects in an astonishing variety of shapes and sizes reflect the wide array of influences that artisans translated into a characteristic Hungarian/Transylvanian style. For example, hexagonal dishes (2010.110.45) were made in many European centers, particularly Germany, but nowhere was this unusual shape embraced more enthusiastically than in Hungary.

Tankards (2010.110.24), created in German-speaking regions from the Gothic period to the early Renaissance, were used for serving warm or lukewarm beer. The hinged lid preserved the temperature of the beverage and kept out contaminants such as dust, wig powder, and insects. After flourishing for hundreds of years, tankard production gradually fell off during the eighteenth century because of the increasing demand—stemming from newly acquired tastes especially popular among women—for coffee (2010.110.55), tea, and hot chocolate services. Standing cups (2010.110.35) and beakers (2010.110.54) of all forms were preferred for spiced wine. Hungarian beakers (2010.110.72) were typically made with a flared cylindrical body raised on a hollow, spreading foot. Shallow bowls (2010.110.27) with small handles were used for serving brandy and other spirits as well as, according to some sources, sweets and fruits.

The tradition of honoring guests by offering a “welcome cup” filled with wine began in the Middle Ages and reached its apex throughout Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This custom spurred the creation of ostentatious drinking vessels with fanciful shapes of all sorts, including those of creatures such as bears, stags, owls, and unicorns. During the eighteenth century, welcome cups of this type were appreciated mainly for their ornamental value, although they retained their functionality. Four whimsical Hungarian peacock-form cups (2010.110.64a, b) in the Museum’s collection are superb examples of this tendency. Designed to satisfy Hungarian taste and to serve primarily as attention-getting table ornaments, the pieces have detachable heads; removing them allows the decorative birds to be used as drinking vessels.

One of the decorations most frequently used on drinking vessels was the so-called snakeskin ornament (2010.110.36), achieved by punching and matting the silver to create a pattern that, from a distance, visually coheres in a lustrous, velvety surface. This sumptuous motif has practical origins: the punched surface provided traction, preventing beakers from slipping through greasy fingers in an era when forks and knives were designed and employed mostly for carving meat, and food was usually consumed with the hands.

Floral decoration (2010.110.50), composed of large blooms entwined with foliage, was one of the most popular ornaments throughout Europe in the seventeenth century. Leading artists published single prints or books of their designs, which aided in disseminating fashionable styles during the Baroque period.

Hungarian silver had little exposure in the United States before 1986, when the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum presented the loan exhibition Treasures of Hungary: Gold & Silver from the 9th to the 19th Century, featuring sumptuous objects from the Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum in Budapest. The accompanying catalogue, one of the first major English-language surveys of the subject, documented the exhibition’s broad range of objects and shed valuable light on their distinctive Hungarian flavor. The group of objects donated to the Met by The Salgo Trust for Education in memory of Nicolas M. Salgo are similar in variety and quality to those displayed in that exhibition, showcasing goldsmiths’ work from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. With this gift, the Metropolitan Museum now holds the largest collection of Hungarian goldsmiths’ work outside of Hungary.