Gold Container

Northern India, Late 17th century

9cm high, 5.5cm diameter

Provenance: Private European Collection

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Full Description

Gold Container

This rare and important egg-shaped gold container is set with a loop for suspension and decorated, together with the underside finial, with gold granules. Made from thick sheet gold, the present container features a complex chisel-cut, pierced openwork decoration, set in horizontal bands with different floral compositions. These are further decorated by chasing, separated by narrow pearled friezes also made by chasing, while the rim of the upper half, which closes by means of a crossbar, is decorated with a frieze of large granules made by punching a gold wire on a metal die. This precious gold container belongs to a rare group of similar objects, most probably made at the same North Indian production centre, and is only the third known example. One of the three was recently showcased at an exhibition in Lisbon and belongs to a private Portuguese collection in Porto, while the second one belongs to a private collection in Lisbon.[1] The one in Porto, perfectly spherical and also chisel-cut, features an hexagonal-based trellis, or lacework. This is similar to Indian jalis (pierced, openwork stone screens) which derive from the complex Islamic decorations found among the refined courtly arts of the Deccan Sultanates and the Mughal Empire.

These gold containers are related to a somewhat larger group of precious egg and sphere-shaped containers made from silver and, more rarely, from gold, where the halves close by pressing them together. Usually featuring a plain silver-gilt inner lining and an outer case made from pierced, openwork silver, decorated with horizontal bands of foliage made in repoussé, these have been identified as Gujarati or Goan in origin, and are dated from the late 17th to the early 18th century. Of these examples, some of which are large, a rare number feature their original contents: a Goa stone. Goa, or cordial, stones originated in the apothecary of the Colégio de São Paulo in Goa, and were an invention of the Florentine lay brother Gaspar António in the mid-16th century. These were medicinal products and substitutes for the rare and very valuable bezoar stones - stomach secretions of an organic and mineral nature not digested by the bezoar goat - of Persian origin, which at the time had become difficult to acquire. According to most of the recipes that have survived, these stones, spherical in shape and covered with gold leaf, were made from musk, oriental bezoar stones, ambergris, seed pearls, ground antelope or deer horn, terra sigillata, red and white coral, emerald, topaz, ruby, jacinth and sapphire. Used in moderation, and scraped, ground, diluted into elixirs or merely immersed in liquid, these valuable stones would occasionally be stored and displayed in their own precious boxes and containers, made from gold or silver. One of the most spectacular examples is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Accession Number 2004.244a-d. It is rendered entirely in gold, including gold granules, and features an elegant stand. It has been attributed to Goan workmanship as its complex decoration of animals and birds over a floral ground, with pierced and chased openwork, is similar to the trellis decoration of the reliquary casket of St Francis Xavier, which was undoubtedly made in Goa.[2] In contrast, the containers featuring silver-gilt linings have been recently attributed to Bombay - an important port city ruled by the British from 1665 onwards - regardless of the origin of the medicine housed in them, as such objects invariably come from old English collections, like the gold example now in New York.[3]

The decoration on the present gold container in horizontal bands, in contrast to the similar gold container in Porto, is reminiscent of the silver and silver-gilt examples attributed to Bombay in the late 17th century. While the four-petalled flowers on our container are in fact similar to the example in Porto, the undulating frieze of flowers and leaves near the rim of the present example match a type of frieze used in contemporary 17th-century Gujarati furniture, and Mughal-style glazed earthenware tiles.[4] Our container would either have been made in Portuguese-ruled Goa, British-ruled Bombay (it was Portuguese before being gifted to Britain as part of the dowry of the Portuguese Catharine of Braganza, wife of Charles II), or in another North Indian coastal city deeply engaged with European trade and the commissioning of luxury objects for export. The decorative patterns and motifs, alongside the metalwork techniques (and the reddish staining of the metal as seen from the inside) used in the manufacturing of our precious container is quintessentially Hindustani.

Literature: Crespo, H. M., Jewels from the India Run (cat.), Lisboa, Fundação Oriente, 2015.

Crespo, H. M., Choices, Lisboa, AR-PAB, 2016.

Haidar, N. and M. Sardar (eds.), Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700. Opulence and Fantasy (cat.), New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.

[1] Crespo, 2015, pp. 142-147, cat. 130

[2] Crespo, 2015, pp. 139-143, cat. 124; Haidar and Sardar, p. 316, cat. 189

[3] Crespo, 2015, p. 145

[4] Crespo, 2016, p. 175, cat. 16

Gold Container


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