Ceramic makers and other creatives find inspiration for their art and craft from all that surrounds them. They seek out shape, form, function, ergonomics, colour, structure, surface design and textures with a view to develop new work. A museum is often the starting point to get the creative juices flowing as ideas and inspiration can be triggered by objects on display. As a ceramic maker and researcher my interest and inspiration for a theory and practice-based project began when I encountered Bartmann Jugs displayed at a museum, just like the one pictured below.
Firstly, a little background history. The Bartmann jug is a 16th–17th century ceramic vessel made from clay deposits found in the Rhine Valley and the surrounding area of Cologne. An abundance of accessible clay and the Rhine River provided an opportunity for potteries to establish and flourish. The river enabled excellent transport links throughout Germany, Flanders, and the Netherlands. Once these sturdy and liquid proof jugs had been produced, they were transported by road or boat to the Dutch ports, where they would be sent by sea to London and other British ports and much of Northern Europe. Consequently, Bartmann jugs became ubiquitous in Northern Europe and have been found throughout the world as they were conveyed by those aboard the ships of the Dutch and British East India Companies. Bartmann jugs have been found in early European colonies, such as Jamestown, New England and in many archaeological excavations and shipwrecks around the world.
As Nigel Jeffries notes elsewhere on this blog, the reason for Bartmann jugs to be also known as Bellarmine jugs, is that they were named after St. Roberto Bellarmino. Bellarmino was a catholic cardinal (1542–1621) and an opponent to the Protestant doctrines of the Reformation. He became very unpopular with the Dutch, German and English Protestants who named the jugs ‘Bellarmine’ as the bearded mask portrays a fearsome face that had a strong resemblance to Bellarmino.
Why and how does this jug demand our attention?
For many of us, when we first see an object, it is not always immediately clear why we find it captivating. From a maker’s perspective when I explore the 3D imagery of the pictured jug, the first characteristic I am drawn to is the bearded face or mask. As humans we instinctively like to view a face, it is the first thing our infant eyes try to make sense of; it is therefore a primal instinct to be fascinated by facial features. This jug’s mask is quite formidable, we are drawn to its wide eyes, flared nose, open mouth and bearded knot. These masks are called sprigs and made from carved moulds which are then filled with clay and then pushed onto the jug with slip (liquid clay, acting as a glue) before the jug is fired. When viewing the mask, it creates an immediate impression and a curiosity and desire to explore further.
We can then study the anthropomorphic shape of the jug, as it is possible to see our human morphology reflected back at us. It is no accident that portions of bottles and jugs are named after human body parts. In the case of this Bartmann jug, as you spin the image around you can view the strong and solid lip for pouring and housing a stopper, the long slender neck, curved shoulders, a voluminous belly and a sturdy foot. The neck and foot are well proportioned offering a pleasing and balanced form. If you rotate the jug to look at the strap handle, it is possible to see that a plug of clay was attached below the lip rings, the handle was then pulled and shaped before the potter curved the clay and attached the handle where the belly starts to form. If you zoom in you can see the potters thumb marks where they would have joined the handle in three places, either side of the centre and then a firm centre thumb swipe. For an experienced potter this is one of the quickest and strongest of joins. These vessels were made speedily for mass production, so you can see the smears of clay as the thumb worked in a downward motion into the body of the jug forming the robust handle. If you were able to hold the jug, you would get a sense of how the handle was made and how strong it is. The overall balance and weight of the vessel would also be appreciated. It is in the handle where you could feel the mark of the maker, and in my mind, be transported back to the time when the vessel was made.
The next area to evaluate would be the medallion or armorial. This is the stamp on the front belly of the vessel, below the mask. These crests are a form of marketing. Merchants predominantly from Amsterdam had their own medallion stamp, so purchasers could identify the origins of the jugs content. Some jugs have medallions signifying a family coat of arms, which was a symbol of status, whilst other jugs are either plain or have medallions of flowers, petals, or berries. In the case of the crest on this jug it is believed that it is a composite of an old armorial crest that the potters have reused in an imaginative way, in the form of a decoration.
A final observation would be to look at the glazed surface. The commercial success of these jugs is down to the strength of its stoneware clay which vitrifies at 1250oc; combine that with the salt glazed surface and a liquid tight vessel is created. By zooming in on the image you can view the classic ‘orange peel’ surface texture, which would have been created by salt being shovelled into the kiln when it reached its maximum heat. The texture and colour add to the appeal of this evocative and charismatic vessel. It is all these characteristics that have claimed and demanded our full attention and through the 3D image we can make a fuller and better appraisal of this Bartmann jug than viewing it through a glass cabinet alone.
I do however believe there is still more to be explored if only this jug could be lifted, touched, handled, then how much more we could learn from it?
Why re-create Bartmann Jugs?
I re-create ceramic stylised Bartmann jugs that can be handled by museum visitors, introducing them to the feel and touch of material culture. I believe that one can only share in the maker’s hand and creative process if objects can be touched and handled.
Curators in museums are custodians of precious objects. They collect and display objects, and it is rare, even for them, to handle the collections in their care without wearing gloves. Treasured objects need to be protected from damage and the acidic grease and grime from many hands. So here is the dichotomy: how is it possible for museum visitors to fully engage with material culture if the objects are behind glass, while at the same time for those objects to be protected?
In his book Fewer, Better, Things: the Hidden Wisdom of Objects (2018), Glenn Adamson argues, ‘As a culture we are in danger of falling out of touch, not only with objects, but with the intelligence they embody: the empathy that is bound up in tangible things’ (p. 4). He suggests that we are so overwhelmed with the number and complexity of objects that surround us that we are confounded and have become disengaged, relying on experts to interpret them for us. I would go further and suggest that because exhibition spaces are so vision centric, we have lost the ability to make a full evaluation of the objects around us. We see, but we don’t feel and touch. Touch is the very first sense we are aware of when we enter the world; it is a sad fact that we are becoming detached from this essential sense.
As a ceramic maker the touch and feel of ceramic objects and clay is an immersive and therapeutic experience. Haptic interaction needs to be revived and celebrated and it is for this reason I make ceramic handling collections for use in museums, thereby offering an interactive and immersive opportunity for visitors.
Handling collections in museums are not new, but they are rare and especially rare in the case of ceramics. The recontextualising of the Bartmann jug has been at the centre of my recent practice. By telling the stories of the Bartmann jug I hope that there can be meaningful engagement about how the jugs are made and bring the history of these evocative objects to life.
My handling collections tell three different narratives related to the history of these iconic vessels. Each group can add to the historical knowledge gained by the visitor. The Trad Folk group, alludes to the Bartmann mask, which is thought to be the Wildman of the woods, a well-known figure in European folklore, sometimes referred to as the Greenman.
The handling group named The Travellers, tells the tale of the global commerce of the Bartmann jug. Lastly, The Witch Bottles, explain how the Bartmann jug was repurposed by ‘cunning people’ in the 16th and 17th centuries, who reused the jugs for counteracting bewitchments.
Past and contemporary ceramic makers play an important role in how we engage with their creations. A conversation is created between the maker and the viewer through their engagement with the work. Knowingly or unknowingly, makers use viewers’ emotional programming to entice them with their work, through form, profile, colour, concept, illustrative commentary (using the vessel wall as a canvas) and emotion. It could be said that makers themselves have a primal desire to create vessels, simply for their own satisfaction. There is for some, an in-built instinct and fascination with the forming a pot from what is essentially, mud. It is not just the physical walls of a vessel that are important to the form of a pot, the void plays an important role too. What is contained within a vessel can be unexpected: a gift, a secret, or a mystery.
Most of the jugs in my collections contain objects inside the void. The void, in effect, is the driver of the shape of a vessel and it is containment that can spark further interest beyond the outer shell. To quote Heidegger (1967): ‘How does the jug’s void hold? It holds by keeping and retaining what it took in. The void holds in a twofold manner; taking and keeping’. Heidegger surmises that holding and giving are key to the jug’s connection with our emotions. He goes on to substantiate this by saying, ‘giving is richer than mere pouring out, it is a gift’. This suggests that there is a strong human instinct with containment and delivery, which is why vessels play a pivotal role in ‘giving’ via rituals throughout human evolution. Ceramic vessels have a strong link to ceremony, as they can be emotive players in religious and non-religious rituals.
It is for these reasons that my handling collections contain objects for investigation, and this is especially true of the Witch Bottles that have a cabalistic quality. Exploring the void and finding hidden objects can recreate some of the excitement that an archeologist might feel when unearthing a fascinating object; it adds another dimension to the exploratory experience of handling the vessels. The Witch Bottle supports this intrigue with secret containment, as objects related to ritual were found sealed within Bartmann jugs. This afforded an opportunity to investigate how the Bartmann jug has been repurposed for ritual and performance. The practice required objects related to an individual who had been bewitched, to be placed in the jug’s void, such items as, fingernail clippings, hair, bent nails, and pins. The bottle would then be filled with urine and either boiled or placed under the doorway, in a wall cavity or under the hearth of the home of the afflicted. It was believed that this undertaking would cause such pain in the witch’s bladder that the bewitchment would be lifted.
This practice may seem an absurd way to deal with sickness considering our current knowledge of modern medicine, but folklore and rituals played an important role in the post-medieval era. If we consider that today the 75% of ailments with which we visit our doctors, will cure themselves without intervention, together with the placebo effect, it is not difficult to believe that the Witch Bottle would have a degree of success, certainly enough to perpetuate the practice.
The connection between the jugs creator, the ritual practitioner, and the engaging audience becomes a creative collaboration through the handling of the vessel, which expands the conversation around the piece. To delve inside the jugs and find hidden secrets adds to the narrative, interaction, and exploratory experience.
For museums, interactions with handling collections can be valuable inclusive and interactive tools to engage with museum visitors. They can act as a catalyst for discussions on material culture and history, and can be used as a method of engagement with schools and community groups and therefore expanding the inclusivity of museums. I very much hope that my handling collections can introduce the museum visitor to the history and wonders of the evocative Bartmann jug.