The French word Nef and the part of a church called the Nave both derive from the Latin word Navis, for ship, reflecting the nefs early status as both religious and secular. The nave, considered symbolic of Noah’s Ark (Peter 3:20-21) and Jesus calming the storm (Luke 8:22-25), represents the salvation of the church as well as the fortitude of the Christian faith through rough and stormy waters.
As secular items, nefs were placed next to the prince or the host at the ceremonial dining table and used to hold his napkin and eating implements (Fig.1). In terms of scale they could differ significantly, as Olivier de la Marche comments on the Duke of Burgundy’s nef in 1474 “any prince or ambassador who came to speak with him at table would not be able to see him for it.”1
As centuries passed their exalted status remained constant, for example Louis XIV’s gold and enamelled nef continued to be reverently bowed to in the late 17th century2. Over 100 years later during the marriage feast of Emperor Napoleon and Empress Marie-Louise in 1810 at the Louvre, silver-gilt nefs by the court goldsmith Henry Auguste were staged at each end of the wedding table. While their importance and symbolism remained, elsewhere they were adopted as vessels for drinking or pouring wine as part of the theatrical table sculpture of a prince or patrician family.
In Germanic culture ‘trinkspiele’, or drinking games, merged the gratification of eating and drinking around a combination of kinsmanship and frivolity. As typical with many of these vessels, an undercurrent of seriousness was also present; in this case, the figures on deck are prepared for battle, the sail is at full wind, while the man in the crow’s-nest is alert and on watch for trouble ahead. This is perhaps a subtle reminder of the perils of drinking, or the danger’s of diversion from a holy and righteous path.
Specialisation, including the art of nef making was an important feature of goldsmith’s workshops in 17th century Nuremeurg, with knowledge and techniques passing between families and generations. Georg Müllner (active 1624-59) whose surviving work consists entirely of nefs, married Ursula Wolf, widow of Tobias, a specialist nef maker3, in 1625 (Fig.2).
There are several almost identical recorded examples by Müllner, one was sold in these rooms, 9 July 2014, lot 25. Another was sold Christies London, 2 June 2009, lot 29, and a third can be found in the collection of Rudolf-August Oetker (see Monika Bachtler et al., Die Faszination Des Sammelns, Bielefeld, 2011, pg. 114, no. 20). A further nef on wheels by Müllner is in the Historical Museum, Bern, where there is also a nef on fixed foot by the same maker. Examples in that standing cup form are also in the Oetker collection and the Hermitage, St Petersburg.
1Georgina Reynolds Smith, Table Decoration: Yesterday Today and Tomorrow, New York, 1968, pg.48
2`The maître d'hôtel is directed to pause before the nef and bow “with all the reverence of a priest passing before the tabernacle”, ’Cyril G.E.Bunt,`The silver nef’, The Connoisseur, June 1943, pp 90-94
3Karin Tebbe et al. Nürnberger Goldschmidekunst 1541-1868, Nuremberg 2007, no. 597
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