Silver Gilt Standing Cup in Form of a Shell, with Venus and Mars, Augsburg, 17th century

Object Number: #288

Augsburg 1660

Matthäus Schmidt

City’s hallmark: a “pyr” for Augsburg, 1660

Maker’s mark: “MS” in a round shield for Matthäus Schmidt (Seling Nr. 1621)

Height: 30,5 cm (12,01 in.)

Weight: 378 gr.

Silver Gilt Standing Cup in Form of a Shell, with Venus and Mars

The present antique silver cup shows a very interesting type of drinking vessel of the baroque. The cuppa has the form of a shell and is raised on a high, vaulted, embossed and curved foot. The foot is on its own right richly decorated with typical decorative motifs of the baroque, namely voluminous flowers. Above the foot raises a shaft with two bunches of flowers at the extremities and a male, cast figure in the middle. The shaft is cast in one piece. The male figure wears a modish costume of the seventeenth century, has long hair and holds a halberd in the right hand, a typical feature for a mercenary. The cuppa has the form of a shell is embossed and the stern is towards the upper part particularly curved. Between the stern and a cast part which has the form of a wave emerges, just like coming out from the see water, a cast, female figure standing on a bunch of flowers. This female figure is most probably Venus and in fact Venus marina. This suggests that the male figure with the halberd is representing the god Ares/Mars. Ares/Mars was the god of war in the Greek and Roman mythology. Venus and Mars represent a pair of lovers and in connection with this fact, the present cup must have been created on the occasion of a marriage. The marks are to be seen on all three parts of the cup – on the foot, the cuppa and the part which is formed as a wave. The control zig-zag mark is underneath the foot and underneath the cuppa.

For a similar type of drinking vessel from the same period, s. a standing cup in The Holburne Museum.

The Cup in its Historical and Art Historical Context 

Drinking alcohol was not any longer negatively judged since the sixteenth century. On the contrary, excessively drinking was to be considered as an achievement. The noble showed as a matter of fact in this way his strengths. Women besides did not fall short. During the seventeenth century, it happened often that there were fixed drinking habits at the table for members of the high Society.

The existent variety of drinking vessels implies also that alcohol (mostly wine and beer) was quite central at the table. The cup takes in the sixteenth and seventeenth century many different forms that imitate nature; cups were made using different exotic, natural materials. For example they were made of pearly chambered nautilus shells, coconuts, turbo shells are only some types of cups made in the seventeenth century. Cups with cuppas in the form of shells were also quite popular. The particularity and form of the cup as well as its height were in any case features that functioned as a status symbol for the one who was drinking out of it.

Venus cups or Venus bowls – as the vessels that present Venus as a central figure are called – were quite popular in the seventeenth century. A significant, beautiful and costly executed example of such a bowl made from Gottfried Döring (goldsmith) and Paul Heermann (ivory carver) are to be admired at the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) in Dresden.

Models and Iconography

The present shell-shaped cup with the Venus marina as a central figure is to be seen in relation with other depictions of Venus of this time-period. It is quite possible that the maker got his inspiration from a drawing made in 1652 by Jakob von Sandrart (1630-1708), engraver, publisher and founder of the academy of painters (1662) in Nuremberg, where he has drawn a Venus marina, Galatea or Fortuna (s. at the Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden).

The figure of the shaft, Mars, must be in relation with numerous others depictions of the pair of lovers, Venus and Mars, who were to be seen in different art works. Mars as a contemporary mercenary with a halberd as a service weapon is also shown in older depictions, like for instance on the cover of the book Practica Teütsch of Christophe Höchstetter (1522).

Mars next to Venus constitutes a compositional unity for the cup, a symbol of love. For this reason, it is safe to assume that the cup was made on the occasion of a marriage of the contracting customer.


Matthäus Schmidt became a maker in 1659 in Augsburg and he died in 1696. There are many drinking vessels made from him and particularly cups in private and public collections. A shell cup from Matthäus Schmidt is to be seen for instance in the collection Neresheimer (Kat. Nr. 35). This cup demonstrates ancient models having been used by the maker. Another important cup is in the collection of Oetker, s. Bachtler, M., Syndram, D. und Weinhold, U. (eds.), Die Faszination des Sammelns: Meisterwerke der Goldschmiedekunst aus der Sammlung Rudolf-August Oetker, Hirmer Verlag, 2011, p.84./cat. no 12.