Wednesday, 17 December 2014

beaker culture

Looking at this glass without knowing its context and provenance, one might think it’s a beautifully crafted piece of Nordic school Art Déco.

This vessel, one of fourteen known extant pieces, however, is called the Beaker of Saint Hedwig, a Polish duchess from Bavaria with a great reputation for her charitable works, like her niece Elizabeth. It was these glasses, however, commissioned by her husband, Henry Long Beard, Duke of Poland, hundred years ago which really cemented Hedwig’s fame and beatification. After the royal couple had reared twelve children (forming connections to a vast swath of European history) and the Duke had led a life of political intrigue and had some dealings with profiteering during the Crusades (where these fine glasses were almost definitely created, as such craftsmanship was not to be found in medieval Europe), the two turned to a more pious way of existence. Henry accepted most of Hedwig’s quirks and flagellations, but the Duke found it beyond to be too much when his wife gave up wine and only drank water.
Whether it was in fact the bath-water of the nunnery, as some say, the fact remained that the water supply of the day was potentially sickening to drink and wines and spirits were generally much safer and cleaner and so the Duke grew concerned about her health. Presenting her a collection of fine goblets—though the beakers are more vase-shaped and look awkward for actually drinking out of, maybe better suited as a communion cup—the Duke hoped his wife would change her habits but was disappointed when she still poured plain old water into them. Later, however, the Duke saw that when Hedwig raised the glass to her lips to drink, the water was changed miraculously into wine. The pictured glass is from the British Museum but the beakers have been held in the treasuries of abbeys and cathedrals as holy relics for centuries. In fact, I am pretty certain that I passed one more from the set from the same workshop in the very fine museum collection of the Coburg Fortress without realising it. There are quite a few of the Hedwig glasses in Germany, including one in the Cathedral of Minden—and H and I will have to be on the look-out during our travels.