Nautilus Cup (1575/1625) by Flemish, or South GermanMilwaukee Art Museum
Popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nautilus cups combine the wonders of the natural world with the high-quality metalwork of master craftsmen.
Wealthy noblemen fascinated by the new materials and creatures being discovered through global trade routes purchased the cups for display: the cups were never actually used. Rather, noblemen proudly displayed the cups in their wunderkammer, or cabinets of curiosities, with other treasures from around the world.
A chambered nautilus is a sea creature that lives in a portion of the Indian and Pacific oceans known as the Indo-Pacific. Removing the outer skin of a nautilus exposes the shiny and pearl-like shell, and cutting the shell in half reveals a mathematical wonder: the equiangular (or logarithmic) spiral.
The water and other sea imagery of the cup complement the seashell, whose name, “nautilus,” comes from the Greek word nautilos for sailor, from naus for ship.
The cup is topped by a wave carrying Poseidon, the Greek god of water, riding a sea creature.
Featured on the side is a triton, a mermaid-like being of the sea from Greek mythology, blowing a conch shell.
The mythological strongman Hercules holds the shell up. The lion skin and the gnarled club—Hercules’ two attributes—indicate that it’s him.
Hercules stands on a turtle, another water creature prominent in Greek myths, although not specifically associated with Hercules. However, the more creatures a cup had, the more impressive (and valuable) it was. The turtle’s head, feet, and tail are articulated, so they move when the cup is lifted up.
Flemish or South German
Nautilus Cup, 1575/1625
Shell, gilt bronze, copper, silver, and semiprecious gems
12 1/2 × 7 1/2 × 3 3/4 in. (31.75 × 19.05 × 9.53 cm)
Purchase, with funds from Donald and Donna Baumgartner
Photographer credit: John Nienhuis