A Syrian Apothecary Jar in The Three Marys at the Tomb by Jan van Eyck

By Alexandra Gaba-van Dongen, 9 Octobre 2012.

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen holds the only painting in the Netherlands attributed to the late mediaeval artist Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390-1441). 'The Three Marys at the Tomb' (fig. 1) is of particular interest to the ALMA Project – the museum’s collection website where research into artefacts in art is presented – because of an item pictured by Van Eyck which has never been studied in detail before. It is the blue and white apothecary jar that the Mary on the left holds in her hand (fig. 2).


Fig. 1 – Jan van Eyck, The Three Marys at the Tomb, c. 1430-35, panel, 71,5 x 90 cm, inv. 2449 (OK), Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam.











Fig. 2 – Detail of fig. 1.

Interdisciplinary research based on visual and material sources makes it possible to study the role and significance of decorative objects and ordinary utensils as models for painters in the fine arts. This approach allows us to get closer to artists’ studio practices. Identifying the objects pictured sometimes adds unexpected information to the interpretation and history of a single work or an oeuvre. Comparing painted versions of objects with existing pieces in museums and archaeological collections sheds light on the use of artefacts as props for painters, and on how and to what extent an artist realistically depicted a particular item as a pictorial element in a composition.



We know that Jan van Eyck used model books, but did he also use artefacts from his immediate surroundings as models when creating his paintings? We can point to a number of objects in his oeuvre that are pictured with great realism, and this would seem to suggest quite strongly that they were based on contemporary examples. Van Eyck captured with extraordinary verisimilitude the design, colour and texture of the artefacts that appear in the upper scene of his miniature 'The Birth of John the Baptist' in the Turin-Milan Hours (fig. 3): bronze candlesticks, glass bottles and ribbed beakers, ceramic, pewter and brass jugs and tankards, wooden eating bowls, spoons, and the wooden pattens that are also depicted in his Arnolfini wedding portrait (National Gallery London).


Afb._3_-_Miniatuur_Jan_van_Eyck_Geboorte_van_Johannes_met_tafel_met_glaswerk Fig. 3 – Jan van Eyck, The Birth of John the Baptist, Turin-Milan Hours, fol. 93v, Turin, Palazzo Madama, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica.


Back to 'The Three Marys at the Tomb'. The picture illustrates the account in Mark 16:1-8 of how Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and possibly Mary Salome go to Christ’s grave on Easter morning to anoint his body. While the soldiers on guard sleep, an angel on the empty tomb tells them that Christ has risen from the dead. Mary Magdalene kneels before the tomb, while the Virgin Mary in blue and Mary Salome in green stand to one side. All three hold an ointment jar: Mary Salome has a blue and white one made of ceramics, its footring concealed by the folds of her green cloak, which cover her hand. The other two Marys appear to be holding brass or wooden ointment jars. There is a realistic view of the city of Jerusalem In the background. According to the story, the three Marys had each bought an ointment jar that morning to anoint Christ’s body.

At first sight, one is inclined to associate the blue and white apothecary jar Van Eyck has depicted here with the earliest European maiolica, which was produced in the first half of the fifteenth century. Expensive decorative ceramics and utensils made in Spain and Italy were available in the northwest of Europe, including the Southern Netherlands. This manufacture of maiolica began in Spain, inspired by imports of fine ceramics, glassware, brass- and copperware, textiles and Oriental carpets that came in by way of the trade in the area around the Mediterranean. It is therefore not unusual to find exotic luxury goods like these depicted in European paintings of the period. Traditional ceramic utensil shapes made in Italy, like small pitchers and flower vases, which from around 1425 onwards were also made in the north in blue and white maiolica, can be found in the art of the time. An early example is a small pitcher from Montelupo dating from around 1430 that is pictured on the table in The Annunciation, the famous Mérode triptych by the Southern Netherlandish painter Robert Campin (active 1406-1440) in the Cloisters Collection in New York. A blue and white Florentine flower vase of around 1440 appears in the 'Annunciation' by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1399/1400-1464) which is in the Musée du Louvre in Paris.

AFB_4 Fig. 4 – Miniature of a North Italian apothecary's shop in a Hebrew edition of the 'Canon Medicinae' by Ibn Sina/Avicenna, c. 1450-75, Bibliotheca Universitaria, Bologna, Italy, MS 2197, fol. 492.

The type of apothecary jar in the Rotterdam panel, taken in conjunction with the date the painting was made – around 1430-35 – seems to rule out a possible Spanish or Italian origin for the jar. The type of jar depicted by Van Eyck does not match any contemporary European examples. Besides this, production of blue and white apothecary’s jars did not get under way in Spain and Italy until around 1440 and so we do not see them before that time depicted in European art. One of the earliest examples in which they appear is a picture of an apothecary’s shop in a Hebrew edition of the 'Canon Medicinae' by the Persian physician and scholar Ibn Sina (Avicenna) of around 1450 (fig. 4).


From 1450 onwards, Spanish and Italian ceramics start to appear more often in nort-western European art. Hans Memling (c. 1430/40-1494) depicted small Italian jugs in his 'Virgin and Child' of around 1480-90 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie) and in his 'Vase of Flowers' of around 1485-90, painted on the verso of the 'Portrait of a Young Man' (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid). Hugo van der Goes (c. 1440-1482) painted some very realistic Spanish maiolica, such as the famous apothecary jar in Valencian lustreware that he included in the Portinari Triptych of 'The Adoration of the Shepherds' of around 1476-78 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). In the magnificently illuminated book of hours made for Engelbert II of Nassau (1451-1504), with miniatures supplied by the Master of Mary of Burgundy between around 1477 and1490, there is a fantastic miniature (fig. 5) with realistic depictions of eight different maiolica objects of Spanish and Italian origin surrounding two biblical scenes. The pieces probably came from the Count of Nassau’s private collection. The Spanish lusterware apothecary jar on the lower right bears a strong resemblance to the version of Van der Goes and to two pieces in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s collection (fig. 6). 


AFB_6 Fig. 5 – Master of Mary of Burgundy, miniature, c. 1477-1490, Ms. Douce 219, fols 145v, 146r, Bodleian Library, Oxford.

However, ceramics experts do not identify the blue and white apothecary jar Van Eyck depicted as a representation of Italian or Spanish maiolica, not even an imaginary version of it. This means that we must seek its origins elsewhere.

AFB_6_twee_apot Fig. 6 – Two apothecary jars, Valencia/Manises, Spain, c. 1475, gold lustreware, h. 31 cm, A 3701 a-b (KN&V), Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam.

The prototype of the cylindrical, waisted or spherical apothecary jar comes from the Middle East. This container for pharmaceuticals usually had a tapering rim to which a lid or a cover made of fabric, parchment or leather could be secured. This shape of pot was developed for the packing, transport and storage of the medicines, medicinal herbs, costly spices and foodstuffs that were traded in the Middle East and beyond, in Europe, through Venice. In the first half of the fifteenth century, Bruges, the town where Jan van Eyck had a workshop, was the hub of the world trade in medicines. Arabic medicine was highly regarded in the Middle Ages. The trade went through Venice, the entrepôt for Oriental medicinal products and spices at this time. Apothecary jars were sold primarily for their contents, not for the jars themselves as special or exotic objects, but they came to be valued as such in Europe. The fifteenth-century apothecary, regularly pictured in European miniatures, paintings and frescoes, was found chiefly in hospitals, courts, episcopal palaces and monasteries; wealthy families had their own house apothecary.


AFB_7 Fig. 7 – Anonymous, Celebration at a Royal Court, Iran, Shiraz, miniature, body colour and gold on paper, c. 1444, right-hand page of a double-sided title page, 32.5 x 22.1 cm, inv. 1945.169, Cleveland, OH, The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Looking at the type of decoration on the jar pictured in 'The Three Marys at the Tomb', we can clearly see that it is decorated all round with a quite crude floral pattern of leaves and vines in cobalt blue on a white ground. Van Eyck added a subtle yet bright vertical stroke to the jar to emphasize its gleaming surface. If we take the formal design of the jar and its specific type of decoration in conjunction with the date of the painting, we find that it is very like the fritware apothecary jars that were produced in Syria, Egypt and Persia during the Mamluk and Timurid dynasties in the second half of the fourteenth century and first half of the fifteenth. In this period the blue and white ceramics produced in the Middle East were strongly influenced by imports of Chinese porcelain. The presence of porcelain from China in the Middle East has been demonstrated by means of archaeological and visual sources. Excavations in Damascus prove that local potters used blue and white porcelain from China as inspiration for the decorations on local shapes such as apothecary jars. Also visual sources confirm the phenomenon. Chinese bottles in blue and white porcelain from the Ming Dynasty can be found in a fifteenth-century Persian miniature of the Timurid period (figs. 7 and 8).



AFB_8_detail_Iraanse_miniatuur Fig. 8 – Detail of fig. 7.

Potters in the Middle East applied Chinese porcelain decorations on existing local ceramic shapes such as apothecary jars; they also copied both the shapes and designs of Chinese porcelain objects like bottles and flagons wholesale (fig. 9).


AFB_9 Fig. 9 – Bottle after a Chinese model, Persia or Syria, blue and white fritware, 15th century, inv. 29/1988, The David Collection, Copenhagen.

The immense popularity of Chinese porcelain in the Middle East completely changed the demand for glazed ceramics. This type of pottery – also known as ‘fritware’ – was made in Syria, Persia and probably Egypt, too,  from ten parts of powdered quartz [frit glass], one part clay and one part glaze mix. The recipe for it has been found in a 1301 manuscript from the Persian pottery-making centre of Kashan, two hundred kilometres to the southwest of Teheran, in which the manufacturing process for this type of pottery is described by Abu’l-Qasim, historian at the court of the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty in Tabriz, in north-western Iran. Similar blue and white fritware was probably being produced in Egypt at the same time, since pottery waste of this type has been excavated in Fustat, the most important pottery-making centre outside Cairo during this period. The dates ascribed to the manufacture of blue and white Mamluk pottery in Syria and Egypt is based on the blue and white tiled walls in the al-Tawrizi mosque in Damascus, which was built in 1423, where the fritware tiles are signed by a potter named Ghaybi al-Tawrizi (active between 1420-1440 in Tabriz (Iran), Damascus (Syria) and Fustat near Cairo (Egypt). This signature has also been found on hundreds of shards of blue and white bowls and dishes excavated in Fustat, Egypt. This pottery could have come from Syria, as trade goods, but it is also possible that blue and white fritware was being produced in more than one centre at the same time and hence in Fustat itself.

It is becoming increasingly likely that the apothecary jar pictured by Van Eyck was based on a piece from Damascus, Syria. The great majority of archaeological finds of similar blue and white apothecary jars of the first half of the fifteenth century discovered in north-western Europe prove to come from Damascus and are described by international experts as ‘Damascus blue-and-white’. For instance, there is a fragment of a Syrian apothecary jar in France, found in the Palais des Papes in Avignon (fig. 10), which is dated between 1400 and 1425.

AFB_10_goed Fig. 10 – Fragment of apothecary’s jar, Syria, blue and white fritware, early 15th century, Palais des Papes, SRA PACA.

This fragment in Avignon is akin to a surviving example in the museum of ceramics in Sèvres, which is decorated with a design combining floral and calligraphic elements in blue and white; the inscription refers to the apparently potency-enhancing contents (fig. 11).








AFB_11 Fig. 11 – Apothecary jar, Syria, blue and white fritware, h. 36 cm, inv. MNC 8386, Cité de la Céramique, Sèvres.

The cylindrical straight-sided model of this Syrian apothecary jar is similar to Van Eyck’s painted version. Apothecary jars like this were sometimes specially made in Syria as commissions for European customers, as we know from an example made in Damascus at the beginning of the fifteenth century with the city arms of Florence; a number of these have survived and are in various museum collections (fig. 12).









AFB_12_AGA_KHAN Fig. 12 – Apothecary jar with the arms of Florence, Damascus, Syria, blue and white fritware, early 15th century, inv. AKM00567, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada.

Apothecary jars from Syria have also been found in England. In Fenchurch Street in London, archaeologists found no fewer than eight different examples in the fifteenth-century layer of a cesspit. A cesspit is a large waste pit behind a house in which food scraps and broken or discarded household goods were dumped. The Syrian potsherds were found among the broken remnants of local and continental pottery from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. One of these eight jars is very like Van Eyck’s version (fig. 13).



As far as we know, no apothecary jars from Syria have been found in Bruges, where Jan van Eyck had his workshop during the period when 'The Three Marys at the Tomb' most likely was painted. This leaves us with the question as to whether Syrian pottery also occurred in the painter’s immediate surroundings. The proof of this, surprisingly, comes from a written source in Van Eyck’s own background. In the incredibly long inventory of the estate of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, for whom Van Eyck worked as court painter from 1425 until his death in 1441, entry number 4201 reads:

i pot de terre, de l’ouvraige de Damas, blanc et blue, garni le pié et couvescle qui est de jaspre d’argent doré à un ance d’un serpent d’argent doré.

(An earthenware pot, made in Damascus, white and blue, the foot and the cover of jasper decorated with a silver-gilt rim and a silver-gilt handle in the shape of a serpent.)

FER97[1074] height 148mm Fig. 13 – Apothecary jar, Syria, blue and white fritware, 1400-50, Museum of London Archaeology.This description of a blue and white jar from Damascus unfortunately does not make it clear what type of object it represents. The French term 'pot’ is in any event a certain form of container, but it is not certain whether this term also covers apothecary’s jars. Since the piece was fitted with a silver-gilt mount and handle, it could also be a form of pouring or drinking vessel – they were often collected as items to display on a sideboard. Adding a costly fitting in precious metal emphasized and increased its value. What this description does prove, though, is that people from northern Europe in the fifteenth century were clearly aware of the origins of blue and white pottery from Damascus. In Italy, too, the possession of apothecary jars from Syria is recorded in fifteenth-century descriptions in Italian archives. In the Medici archive, for instance, we read that Piero di Cosimo de Medici owned three ‘alberegli domaschini’ – Damascene jars.


If, finally, one tries to conceive of a way Jan van Eyck could have come by a Syrian apothecary jar to use as a model, other than through his Burgundian master or a Bruges apothecary, a very different, highly speculative, possibility presents itself. The historical records tell us that Van Eyck may well have gone on a secret mission to Jerusalem on the instructions of Philip the Good. A visit to the city would explain why Van Eyck was able to paint such a realistic view of Jerusalem in 'The Three Marys at the Tomb'. Identical apothecary jars in blue and white fritware from Damascus were also available in Jerusalem, as archaeological finds in the city confirm. Perhaps the story that the three Marys each bought an ointment jar on Easter morning – and where else could they have done that but in Jerusalem? – inspired Van Eyck to choose an exotic apothecary jar from that biblical setting as a prop in his painting.

With special thanks to:

Danièle Alexandre-Bidon, EHESS, École des Hautes Études et Sciences Sociales, Centre de Recherches Historiques, Paris, France; Lyn Blackmore, Museum of London Archaeology, London, United Kingdom; Annetje Boersma, Atelier Boersma Rotterdam, the Netherlands; Jaume Coll Conesa, Museo Nacional de Céramica, Valencia, Spain; Heather Ecker, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada (museum opens 2013); Friso Lammertse, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam, the Netherlands; Robert B. J. Mason, Royal Ontario Museum and University of Toronto, Canada; Luit Mols, SABIEL Research and Advice Bureau Islamic Art, The Hague, the Netherlands; Mariam Rosser-Owen, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom; Cristina Tonghini, Università Ca’ Foscari, Venice, Italy; Joanita Vroom, Rijksuniversiteit Leiden, the Netherlands; Oliver Watson, Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar; Timothy Wilson, Ashmolean Museum (University of Oxford), Oxford, United Kingdom; Hubert de Witte, Musea Brugge, Belgium.



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