This beautiful pendant is a remarkable survival of late-Renaissance jewellery. Though rooted in late 16th-century goldsmiths’ designs, it can be dated to the second quarter of the 17th century, when the production of elaborate jewellery still thrived among the European elite. The jewel’s intricate composition and emotive subject would naturally have appealed to the distinguished patron of the arts, Alfred Rütschi, whose collection of goldsmiths’ work was displayed at the Kunsthaus Zurich.
The pendant is composed of an ornate strapwork backplate, which is partially enamelled in black and white, and set with enamelled flower motifs on the reverse. The front of the jewel displays the remarkably voluminous principal element of the pelican and her three young, in black-and-white enamelled gold, with three table-cut rubies to the pelican’s chest and wings, and green-enamelled vegetal motifs. A row of five rubies forms the base for the three figures. Surrounding the principal element are four further rubies framed by opposing C-scrolls in black and white enamel. Three droplets with rubies within a foliate motif with similar enamelling are suspended from the bottom of the jewel.
The design of the jewel’s backplate is clearly indebted to the seminal prints by Daniel Mignot. A French printmaker, and possibly goldsmith, Mignot spent time in Augsburg, where he engraved a series of jewellery designs between 1593 and 1596. Characterised by elaborate Schweifwerk (bandwork), his designs for pendants are likely to have influenced the structure of the present jewel (see Princely Magnificence, nos. G32-34).
The Pelican in her Piety was a popular subject in German jewellery and goldsmiths’ work, appearing in numerous design books from circa 1600, such as those of Jacob Mores (see Princely Magnificence, no. G35) and Hieronymus Bang (fig. X and Hackenbroch, op. cit., fig. 534). A few surviving late-Renaissance and early Baroque pendants with the Pelican compare to the present jewel in style as well as subject matter. A southern German pendant in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no. 4212-1855), dated to circa 1600, is of similar design, with rubies adorning the bird’s body to represent her blood, and an analogous strapwork backplate. Though of overall different design, a German, early 17th-century pendant in the Cleveland Museum of Art (inv. no. 1959.336) shows the pelican in a similar pose, surrounded by elaborate floral appliques that recall those on the backplate of the present jewel. Another striking comparison is found in a pendant in the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest (inv. no. 13697), catalogued as probably Transylvanian, mid-17th century. The Pelican and her young are here set into a closely comparable dynamic openwork structure, which testifies to the influence of Daniel Mignot’s designs well into the 17th century.
What sets apart the present pendant from the preceding works is its distinctive, painterly, black-and-white enamel, which dates it firmly towards the mid-17th century. The pattern on the adult pelican, mimicking feathers, is reminiscent of the brooch depicting the Eagle of Poland in the Musée du Louvre (inv. no. MR 418), thought to have been made in Paris in the first half of the 17th century. Replacing the more common pearls, the ornate pendant droplets suspended from the present jewel are also consistent with jewellery from the second quarter of the 17th century; compare a French breast ornament in the V&A (inv. no. M.143-1975). While, based on stylistic antecedents, the pendant is likely to have been made in southern Germany, these diverse comparisons suggest that its origin could lie elsewhere in Europe, where a somewhat international style of jewellery had developed.
With its symbolic significance of love and charity, it is not surprising that the Pelican in her Piety was a particularly sought-after subject in early modern jewellery. Since the Middle Ages, the concept of a mother-pelican feeding her young with her own blood by pricking her breast had been associated with the Passion of Christ and the Eucharist. In the Renaissance this symbolism entered into heraldry and was adopted by rulers such as Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), who was portrayed with a pelican brooch to assert her status as the Mother of the Church of England (fig. X). It has been suggested that, apart from its religious significance, the Pelican in her Piety was regarded as a symbol of marital love and devotion. Jewels depicting the subject may thus have been costly love tokens, as well as statements of Christian piety.
Born into an old Swiss family of industrialists, Alfred Fortunatus Rütschi was an important patron of the arts. Active in the silk business, Rütschi developed an interest in contemporary Swiss painting and became a founding member of the Vereinigung der Zürcher Kunstfreunde. At the same time he amassed an extensive collection of goldsmiths’ work, ranging from the medieval to the contemporary. This collection, including the present jewel, was exhibited at the Kunsthaus Zurich and catalogued by Otto von Falke in 1928, the year before Rütschi’s death. It is perhaps significant that the Rütschi family coat of arms depicts a stork - a bird that, like the pelican, carries profound symbolic meaning.
Y. Hackenbroch, Renaissance Jewellery, London, 1979; Princely Magnificence: Court Jewels of the Renaissance, 1500-1630, exh. cat. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1980