Posted on April 21, 2020 at 3:30 PM by Guest Writer
~ By Beth Martin, Associate Teaching Professor of German, Iowa State University
To have and to hold... Today’s objects focus on lore, love and union. Read on to discover the interpretation of three unique objects in the University Museums' permanent collection.
Wedding traditions in German-speaking areas often involve a challenge for the couple to show their readiness for marriage and to prove that their love can overcome any obstacle. One traditional “German life-skill test” used to help a family assess whether a bride was capable of managing basic household tasks was the “bread test.” In order to prove she was ready for marriage, a potential bride was asked to hold a loaf of bread against her chest and cut several fresh slices from the loaf ….sawing toward herself with a large bread knife. If she cut herself… she might not be ready for marriage—or even survive long enough to get married! Other “tests” for a couple involved showing their families that they could work well together, such as drinking out of wedding cups (“Doppelbecher” or “Brautbecher”). They had to drink a toast from these complicated cups without spilling the contents.
The three bridal cups in University Museums’ permanent collection are examples of this “double-cup” toasting custom. This tradition probably dates as far back as the 13th century, but the story developed into a legend in Nürnberg (Nuremberg) Germany during the 16th century. It is a classic tale of love, devotion and ingenuity: Once upon a time, there was a young noblewoman named Kunigunde, who fell in love with a goldsmith. Unfortunately, Kunigunde’s father wanted his daughter to marry a nobleman. The girl was broken hearted when her father said he would not allow her to marry the man she loved. She became so ill, that her father relented and said he would allow Kunigunde to marry the tradesman if he was skilled enough to produce a cup from which two people could drink at the same time without spilling a drop. The father was sure the smithy would not be able to produce such a cup, but as love would have it, the couple overcame this challenge. Within days, the love-smitten goldsmith had sculpted a cup of gold portraying a young girl with a wide skirt holding a small cup over her head. Both the skirt and the bucket of the sculpted work could serve as cups and the skillful artisan had designed the vessel so that the two could swivel, allowing both bride and groom to drink from it simultaneously. The challenge was met, Kunigunde married the goldsmith and the two lived happily ever after.
While the legend described above involves a goldsmith in Nürnberg and a metal chalice, artisans in many areas of central Europe designed similar marriage cups. These three cups from University Museums’ collection demonstrate how prevalent this tradition was and how it has endured for centuries: one cup in the collection was produced in the early 1700’s while the other two were created at the end of the 1800’s. Nürnberg is also quite a distance from Silesia (today part of Poland) where two of the cups were manufactured - so this tradition was not merely a custom practiced in a narrow geographic region. The visual variety of the cups also illustrates how the craftsperson could vary materials and address the couple’s preferences to produce a very individual object.
Artisans today are still making such cups to give to newlyweds. They are popular wedding gifts. Numerous wedding websites urge couples to drink from bridal cups to emulate the ‘love, faithfulness, and hope’ shown by the couple from Nürnberg. This is a tradition that has survived and continues today.
Top left: Bridal Cup, 1700–1750, German. Silver. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 4.6.10
Bottom left: Marriage or Bridal Cup, c.1880–1890, Fritz Heckert (Silesia, 1886–1923). Glass with enameling, brass. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 3.6.95
Bottom right: Marriage or Bridal Cup, c.1880–1890, Fritz Heckert (Silesia, 1886–1923). Glass, gilded metal. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 3.6.96