European and American Art, 17th–19th century
The Silver Cabinet: Art and Ritual, 1600–1850
For centuries, silver was among the most revered and highly valued materials in Britain. Shipped across the Atlantic from the vast mines of Central America, silver was used to craft a variety of sacred and secular objects, from cups and salvers to medals and coins. Between 1600 and 1850, silver objects also figured prominently in a wide range of religious and social rituals, from the communion service to the taking of tea.
This gallery displays pieces of silver crafted for four of these rituals, each of which required specific forms and styles of ornamentation. Ritual objects from the religious altar occupy the left side of the cabinet. The center section presents elaborately ornamented dining wares decorated to elicit attention. Assembled on the right are exotic objects used in tea drinking, and in the rightmost section, one finds cups and tankards from Harvard’s High Table, the exclusive area where privileged students and senior faculty dined in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The silver on view in each section is linked by shared stylistic attributes and decorative motifs, pointing to the relationship between design and ritual. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain, the art of crafting silver was a culturally embedded practice informed by the ideological questions, patterns of human behavior, and larger debates about the power of objects that animated all of the rituals in which silver objects played a part.