Peter Hewitt is a PhD student at Birmingham University.
As the frost and snow keeps us huddled by the fire and we plan our Christmas festivities, this object offers a window into how summer was celebrated in the Tudor past.
The fire festival of Midsummer, marking the summer solstice and later culminating in the Christian celebration of St. John the Baptist’s nativity on 24 June, was celebrated all over of Europe in medieval times. Even in the 1590s there are descriptions of the great bonfires in London’s streets, where poor and rich would deck their houses with flowers and set up tables outside ‘furnished with sweet bread and good drink’ for neighbours and strangers alike. Protestant reformers saw Popish and pagan roots in these fire celebrations however, and they eventually died out.
SBT 1993-31/280: A 17th century Urbino maiolica dish; white background with blue, yellow and orange decoration; scalloped edged dish, circular with raised centre; central roundel with naked hermaphrodite figure with stole, holding wand/cross; pastoral background; around the edge, mythical winged and tailed female figures and foliage; one edge cracked and mended; wired on back for hanging, 4.5 (h) x 18.5 cm (dia), 1600s, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
This tin-glazed ceramic dish was almost certainly intended for use during the Midsummer and St John’s Day celebrations. The design is copied from an Italian source of the 1570s and the central image shows a young St. John the Baptist. We know this is John, even though the figure looks surprisingly feminine, by the thin wooden crucifix he holds, and because he is pictured emerging from the river Jordan - this way of representing John was made popular by Leonardo da Vinci in the early 1500s.
The strange figures around the edge are known as ‘grotesques’ because they are part human combined with plant forms. The plants, although quite poorly drawn, resemble the seed-head of the herb mugwort – the ‘Dian’s bud’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – which Oberon uses to restore conjugal relations amongst the plays’ couples, and not least between himself and Titania. Mugwort is also known as St. John’s Plant, and was traditionally used to cure eye conditions and restore sight.
As a piece of dining ware, we can imagine this dish being passed around, cupped in the palms of both hands around the central foot, and offered to guests. Dishes like this were often moulded to create the impression they held fruit or nuts. The moulding here is not specifically shaped into any foodstuff, but it has been crafted so as to give it an organic texture. To Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the feel of the dish, combined with its contents and decoration, would have spoken of the bounty of nature and the Christian celebration of John’s nativity.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a sophisticated comment on plant and fairy lore, traditional and popular belief after the religious turmoil of the Reformation – the play’s language was widely understood, but its allusions were not, perhaps, seriously believed. This object operates in the same way. It expresses various ideas associated with Midsummer in Shakespeare’s England; feasting, the fecundity of nature, and the Christian response to that wild fertility.