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Owl cups are drinking vessels in the shape of an owl. They were very popular in the Netherlands and in several German-speaking areas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though few have survived. This one is the oldest surviving owl cup with Antwerp marks. Its coconut body makes it a very costly version. Owl cups were often given as wedding gifts for example, or presented as a trophy at crossbow competitions. They would certainly have been the object of great admiration in their owner’s display cabinet. People did actually drink from the head and the body in the sixteenth century. Vomiting after excessive drinking was associated with an owl’s pellets, which is why the owl was not only the symbol of wisdom, but also of immoderation and overindulgence in alcohol. Engraved on the rim, concealed under the head, is a line of verse in Old Dutch from a love lament by a young man who lost his sweetheart to slandermongering: “Als alle ander fogels sin thoe neste sois min lige beste”. It appears in several different versions on sixteenth-century owl cups and translates as: “When all the other birds are in their nest, my flight is best”.

DIVA versus the Gilbert Collection

“Als alle ander fogels sin thoe neste sois min flige beste.” (When all the other birds are in their nest, my flight is best.) This verse engraved on the Antwerp owl cup dating from 1548-1549 derives from the Zutphens songbook in which the amorous owl is rejected by the nightingale and finds himself in limbo. Today, however, he can direct his attentions to a slightly younger bird from the Gilbert Collection: a partridge from Neurenberg by Georg Rühl (active ca. 1598-1625). Like the owl cup, there are several layers of meaning to the partridge cup. The partridge symbolizes feminine forces and for Catholics on Christmas Day it symbolizes Jesus Christ. In 2001 Arthur Gilbert was knighted. This silver and mother-of-pearl partridge served as a model for the heraldic symbol at the centre of his coat of arms.

Admire the partridge cup from the Gilbert Collection here: