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Object of the Month: March 2023

Majolica Vases

Glazed terracotta

Italian, 16th or 17th century

Earthenware that has been coated with a white glaze and then decorated with other pigmented glazes was first made in Africa around the 6th century. By the 13th century multi-colored designs were possible. A final clear glaze added luster and insured the pieces were watertight. Large quantities of decorative earthenware were produced in Africa and Spain and passed through ports on the island of Majorca on their way to Italy.  Thinking the colorfully painted pieces had originated in Majorca, Italians called them majolica.

By the 16th century, techniques for producing majolica had reached Italy. As would be expected, Italian ceramicists stretched the artistic limits of the medium. Although many early majolica pieces were purely functional and received little decoration, others were elaborately decorated and served as status symbols. In wealthy homes large collections of vibrant dishes, bowls, platters, pitchers, jars, and vases were displayed and used to impress guests.

However, many Renaissance majolica containers were used for storage. In the kitchen, these useful jars stored liquids, grains, nuts, dried fruits and the like. What an apothecary of the period might keep in one can only be imagined. Generally larger majolica containers did not have lids. They usually have a short neck, and the opening has an everted edge, allowing the jar to be covered with cloth, paper, or leather and tied in place over the mouth with a string or strap around the jar’s neck.

Smaller Renaissance majolica containers were rectangular boxes or cylinders with concave sides. The lack of handles permitted them to be stored close together on a shelf, and their shape allowed handling without slipping. Larger vessels were generally spherical or, like M&G’s, ovoid with the smaller end toward the bottom. Today these larger containers are often called majolica vases, though their original purpose wasn’t decorative.

Smaller majolica vases could be picked up by putting hands under the wide part of the vase. M&G’s 15½-inch tall and 13-inch diameter vases are considered large. Each vase weighs nearly 12 lbs. and holds about 4.5 gallons of liquid. A full vase would weigh nearly 50 lbs., which would require considerable strength and balance to lift and carry.

M&G’s Majolica Vases have a 5-inch diameter opening. Although the rounded lips would aid in pouring, the mouth is wide enough for a hand or a ladle to access the contents.

The decoration on M&G’s vases includes white, daisy-like flowers with a blue ring around the darker center.  These flowers with scrolling foliage (sometimes protruding through the flower) and swirling, plume-like shapes are common on Italian Renaissance containers. The blue background would have been painted after the design of the floral decoration. The short, irregular white curves were inscribed into the blue areas before it was fired. Because of the stability of the pigments and the clear glaze, the colors are still vibrant.

Prior to the 1800s few European ceramics have an identifying mark or a signature, and it is extremely rare for any Italian Renaissance piece to be signed or dated. Documented provenance would help determine age and origin or perhaps a design with a family crest or istoriato (having a portrait or a historical or biblical image). However, typical of most such pieces, M&G’s vases lack marks and embellishments, and their provenance extends to just under 100 years.

The opinions of museum curators and experts which specialize in the genre are the primary remaining source for information. M&G’s vases have been examined by experts, who believe the vases were made in Sicily during the late 16th or early 17th century.

Renaissance majolica is strong, but it can easily be broken. For a pair of large vases to have endured 400 years is remarkable, especially surviving their practical role and years spent in cellars and storerooms. Today museums proudly display glued-together objects of Italian Renaissance majolica, even if they are missing sections of the piece. M&G’s large and unbroken Majolica Vases are a treasure indeed.


William Pinkston, retired educator and M&G volunteer


Special thanks to students from the Honors Geometry classes of Bob Jones Academy for determining the vase volume and weight.



Published 2023

Object of the Month: April 2022

Oval Dish: The Baptism of Christ

Earthenware with lead glaze

Bernard Palissy (follower of)

French, 16th or 17th century

Click on the links throughout the article to further your learning.

The Artist

Bernard Palissy (1510-1590) has been called “the Leonardo Da Vinci of France.” Both artists came from poor, country roots and became famous for their artistic and scientific achievements. Palissy wrote about the causes of natural phenomena like springs, earthquakes, and the crystallization of salt. He proposed agricultural methods and designs for gardens and cities. Many of his conclusions were correct, and his writings were studied for scientific insights hundreds of years after his death.

Like Da Vinci, Palissy is most famous for his artistic accomplishments, particularly for what he called rustiques figulines (today called rustic ware or Palissy ware). Snakes, frogs, crayfish, fish, insects, ferns, flowers, leaves, shells, rocks, and other natural items were cast in plaster or similar materials and then used as molds for the clay figures that would be artfully affixed to basins, platters, pitchers, and vases.

Da Vinci experimented with various media as he created masterpieces, and not all his explorations were successful. To achieve certain effects, Palissy tested clay from different sources in a single piece. Since clays respond differently when fired, there were many failures. Various glazes also require different temperatures to bond properly to clay. During one of his experiments Palissy needed more fuel to reach the proper temperature. He used his wooden furniture and the flooring of his house to feed his kiln.

Da Vinci was christened a Catholic, and his religious paintings reflect traditional catholic iconography, although often with a humanistic twist that reflected his worldview. Palissy was also christened a Catholic, but sometime in the 1550s became a Huguenot. This Protestant group adhered to Calvinistic doctrine (John Calvin and Palissy were contemporary Frenchmen, but it is doubtful they ever met). Palissy helped found the first Huguenot church in the city of Saintes and occasionally served as its lay preacher. The Catholic government sought to remove the Protestant heresy through trials, imprisonment, torture, and wars. Being a well-known Protestant, Palissy was repeatedly arrested, tried, and imprisoned for his beliefs.

Just as Da Vinci had powerful, wealthy patrons, so did Palissy. One of the most powerful men in France, Anne de Montmorency amassed an impressive art collection, including a Michelangelo. Several Palissy rustic ware pieces were in his collection, and he used his influence to have Palissy appointed Inventor of Rustic Ware to the King, which aided in his being released from imprisonment. De Montmorency commissioned Palissy to build a grotto—a garden building with an interior designed to appear like a “natural” cave—for his chateau. Grottoes usually included mythological or symbolic figures, often with a fountain centerpiece. They developed into a key expression of wealth, artistic taste, and political views.

In 1562, Palissy was charged with destroying “sacred church images” during a Protestant riot. He denied the charge in court but was imprisoned and his studio ransacked. Cunningly, Palissy wrote to his patron but did not deny the charges nor plead for release. Instead, he described the grotto and how de Montmorency was being defamed by those who destroyed its expensive pieces kept in his studio, which had been “admired by thousands.” Palissy published the letter after which he was soon released.

When de Montmorency died, the unfinished grotto project was abandoned. Meanwhile Catherine de’ Medici (daughter of Lorenzo, wife of the French King Henry II, and later regent for her 10-year old son) was building the Tuileries Palace as her Paris residence. Since Palissy was no longer employed by de Montmorency, she commissioned him to build a grotto for the Tuileries Palace. Palissy brought pieces and molds originally designed for de Montmorency’s grotto to a space set aside for his workshop in the Tuileries gardens.

Little is known of Palissy’s plans for the queen’s grotto; however, the design would be on a grand scale, with the most fashionable artistic illusions. When a visitor looked into the basin of the fountain, for example, he would see the backs of ceramic fish. Ceramic frogs and other creatures spitting water into the basin would create ripples, causing the fish to appear as if they were swimming.

At the end of Da Vinci’s life, he summoned a priest to hear his last confession and was buried in ground consecrated by the Catholic church. As Palissy was approaching 80, he was again condemned for heresy. He spent his last months in the Bastille, where he was poorly treated. Although a friend had secured his release, Palissy knew nothing of it before he died. There is no known grave, although several Palissy monuments have been erected in France.

M&G’s Oval Dish

M&G’s ceramic dish of The Baptism of Christ is a 10 ¼ inches by 8 ¼ inches oval. The face and its lip are bas-relief with colored glazes. The design on the blue and white lip represents palm trees, and the dish is mounted on a concave pedestal. The reverse of the dish and the base are mottled blue and maroon glazes.

In the center of the scene, Jesus appears to stand on the water of the Jordan River while John the Baptist (clothed in brown) pours water onto Christ’s head. There is no mention in Scripture of an angelic presence (as pictured in the sky and two on left); although Matthew 3 does reveal that when Jesus was baptized the Spirit of God descended from heaven in the form of a dove and a voice proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Attending Jesus’ baptism were Pharisees and Sadducees, who had questioned John about his baptizing. These are omitted by the sculptor; however, the kneeling character on the left may be either John the beloved disciple or Mary the mother of Christ.

Later, as John the Baptist describes the event to Jewish rulers, he tells of the dove and the voice which assured him that he had indeed baptized the Messiah. Then seeing Jesus, John proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:19-39). Within the dish’s picture, this pronouncement is symbolized by the lamb reclining at John’s feet.

Other Dishes

Early ceramists often copied their images from prints or other works of art, which can help to establish a date for a piece. A source to parallel the image on the Baptism of Christ dish is unknown. The image may be a compilation from several sources. Besides the Baptism of Christ, Palissy and his followers created various allegoric or historic scenes. Two other biblical scenes were frequently repeated: Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac and the Beheading of John the Baptist.

Dishes similar to M&G’s are in the Louvre, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery in Washington DC, the Cleveland Museum of Art, French National Gallery of Ceramics and other collections. In the past many of these were attributed to Bernard Palissy, but their documented provenance rarely extends prior to the 19th century. Today most are attributed to “a follower of Palissy” or an anonymous 16th or 17th- century ceramist.

It is simple to make a mold of such a piece and produce copies of it. This would have been common practice for popular objects, certainly for Palissy’s lifetime, but also for centuries following. Craftsmen created “stock” objects of art, many devotional pieces, to sell at fairs and in shops—repeating copies from one mold. Over time, copies are made, details become lost, “touch ups” are needed, and glazes (as well as the skill of the glazer) differ.

Palissy did not mark or sign his works. Following his death, contemporary ceramicists, including family members and his studio, continued produced his rustic ware, which was considered inferior. Palissy had not revealed his methods of achieving his ceramic’s characteristic lifelikeness, and his name and work drifted into obscurity until the early 1800s, when a Palissy following emerged, and demand for rustic ware increased. Ceramists of the period discovered how to produce rustic ware that matched Palissy’s quality. Although many signed their work, some passed off pieces as Palissy originals.

The area of Palissy’s Tuileries workshop was excavated in the 1800s and again in the 1900s. Molds and fragments of grotto pieces were found, including the popular spitting frog. Recent scientific analysis of the clay and glazes of these excavated pieces has been compared to works attributed to Palissy. The authenticity of some rustic ware has been reevaluated because they contain materials not available to Palissy.

During excavation in the Tuileries, a fragment of a plaque was found. It bears a similar image of the Baptism of Christ found on M&G’s Oval Dish and on similar dishes in the Louvre, The Victoria and Albert Museum, and other collections. These dishes are probably copies and more likely copies of copies.

M&G’s Oval Dish entered the collection in the mid-1900s.  It is difficult to know its creator, but the design certainly reflects the style and techniques of the great innovator Bernard Palissy.

William Pinkston, retired educator and M&G volunteer



Leonard N. Amico, Bernard Palissy – In Search of Earthly Paradise

Christian Study Library

Patricia F. Ferguson, Pots, Prints and Politics: Ceramics with an Agenda, from the 14th to the 20th Century

Marshall P. Katz and Robert Lehr, Palissy Ware – Nineteenth-Century French Ceramists from Avisseau to Renoleau

Marielle Pic, “Un céramiste de légende : Palissy à Sèvres”

Hanna Rose Shell, “Casting Life, Recasting Experience: Bernard Palissy’s Occupation between Maker and Nature”


 Published 2022

Object of the Month: October 2021

Majolica Charger

Glazed earthenware, signed G. Battaglia

Gaetano Battaglia

Italian, c. 1826-1887

Majolica is earthenware that has been fired in a kiln, coated with an opaque white glaze, decorated with other pigments and fired again, fixing the glaze and design onto the ceramic. The process originated in Africa around the 6th century. By the 13th century, techniques and the ability to paint detailed designs were perfected. It was discovered that a clear glaze and a third firing added luster to the piece.

Italians became enamored of these decorative ceramics. Large quantities were produced in Africa and Spain and passed through ports on the Spanish island of Majorca on their way to Italy. Thinking the pieces had been made there, Italians called this kind of ceramic majolica or maiolica.

By the Italian Renaissance, techniques for producing majolica ceramics had reached Italy. Ceramists produced decorated plates, jars, cups, pitchers, and ornamental pieces. Often the item featured a portrait of a bride, a family member or some notable. Apothecary jars bearing the name of their contents were embellished with scrolling vines, leaves, flowers, and fruits. Wealthy families would display large sets of dishes and serving pieces which were used to impress guests at elaborate banquets.

Often these pieces were istoriato, meaning they illustrated a story—usually mythological, historic, or biblical. Sometimes the narrative would cover the entire surface of the piece; other times, as seen on M&G’s charger, the picture would be surrounded by intricately designed borders. Today museums and collectors prize even the broken pieces of Italian Renaissance majolica.

Although it may look it, M&G’s Majolica Charger is not dated to the Italian Renaissance. In the late 1800s, there was a resurgence of interest in the Italian Renaissance ceramic design, and Italian ceramists produced high quality stoneware in the Renaissance style to meet the demand. M&G’s charger is one such piece.

Making Majolica

Creating an elaborate majolica requires great skill. Not only must the clay be formed and fired carefully, but the tin oxide glaze which dries into an opaque, white surface must also be evenly applied. Colored glazes are then painted onto the prepared surface. The color palette is extremely limited. Black, yellow, blue, golden brown, and green were used on M&G’s charger—typical of majolica designs. Diluting, concentrating, or mixing the glaze pigments can produce various shades of colors.

Painting on the porous white surface is extremely unforgiving. Once applied, the pigment cannot be removed or hidden by painting over it.  Adding pigment to the initial layer produces different effects; however, the original brush stroke, as well as any additional painted strokes and colors in subsequent layers must be adeptly applied. There is no way to repair a mistake.

Consider the border on the lip of M&G’s charger. The inner ring consists of an amber background with 50 hand-drawn, double circles of two different intensities of a golden-brown pigment. The outer border contains 8 fauns, 4 winged angel heads, and 4 angel torsos arranged among scrolling foliage and architectural flourishes. These are arranged in four matching quadrants. The figures are outlined in black and shaded with gray. After the black outlines were painted, the intense blue background areas were painted individually. The lip alone required a precise, highly skilled artisan.

Gaetano Battaglia

Painters of istoriato majolica scenes were consummate craftsmen, such as Gaetano Battaglia (c. 1826-1887). During his lifetime he was known as “a painter of figures.” His exquisite work, often large ceramics with Battaglia’s signature, are in museums and private collections.

His career started around 1850 in Naples, Italy, but little is known of his early works or employment. When the Mosca brothers founded Raffaele Mosca & Compagno in 1865, they hired Battaglia, and he helped them hire other ceramic painters. During the company’s more than 40-year history, its name and ownership repeatedly changed. Mosca produced architectural ceramics and decorative pieces, and it was known for producing an “odorless toilet,” patented by one of the brothers. Battaglia’s duration at the firm, however, is unknown.

Most ceramic painters of the period did not (or were not permitted to) sign their pieces. While many works are attributed to Battaglia, most earthenware known to be his are inscribed with his signature or initials. Generally, his signature is paired with the letter “N” or with “Napoli” for Naples. M&G’s Majolica Charger bears both Battaglia’s signature and an “N” on the reverse.

The specific company that produced many of Battaglia’s signed pieces, however, is unknown. The “Fca” on M&G’s charger (which appears as “Fabb” on other Battaglia pieces) presumably stands for Fabbrica, Italian for “factory.” At that time there were numerous ceramic companies in Naples which had Fabbrica as part of their name. Battaglia may have worked for one of those companies or fired his earthenware designs in a hired kiln, which was a known practice at the time.

The Image

For istoriato earthenware, ceramists in the 1800s often referenced narrative etchings as their design source. The artists would also sketch scenes found in galleries, churches, and palaces as inspiration for their works. A popular image would often be painted by different ceramists on various earthenware pieces, but the source of the design can help identify the narrative’s subject.

M&G’s Charger appears to be unique in that the source of the narrative image is unknown, and no other ceramics are known to have a similar subject. Therefore, only details in the image can be used to determine the pictorial scene. The flowing, loose-fitting garments on the three main figures are of the type artists of the time used for Biblical characters. The winged angel pointing a direction and the three putto leading the procession further suggest a Biblical illustration.

For many years, Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt was the title associated with the charger; however Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus were the only Biblical characters involved in the secretive escape from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-21). The missing infant Jesus and the second adult male on M&G’s charger make this assumption unlikely. Also, the angel instructing Joseph to take his family to Egypt appeared to him in a dream prior to the journey and is rarely included in paintings of the subject by the Old Masters. Additionally, the Holy Family was of modest means and traveled discreetly; yet the charger depicts a large entourage of people and animals behind the three mounted figures. Neither does the imagery follow typical illustrations of the family’s return from Egypt.

More likely the scene is Abraham, his wife Sarah, and nephew Lot on their departure to Canaan. God directed Abraham to travel “unto a land that I will shew thee.” A pointing angel and the procession of putto are used as an artistic rendering of God’s directing the travelers. The 75-year-old Abraham, his “fair. . . to look upon” wife, and the younger Lot correspond to the mounted figures on the charger. Their servants, belongings, and herds are depicted following the main figures (Genesis 12).

While a great deal is known about M&G’s charger, many questions remain unanswered. Was this rarely depicted scene part of a set of dishes and serving pieces illustrating various biblical scenes? If so, do other pieces of the set exist? Or was this piece a unique, limited commission for a specific purpose? More research may reveal answers, but some specifics may never be known, which only adds interest to M&G’s mysterious, beautiful Majolica Charger.

William Pinkston, retired educator and M&G volunteer

Published 2021

Suggested References:

  • Tortolani, La fabbrica napoletana dei fratelli Mosca: il Bello e l’Utile, in “Faenza,” XCIII, 2007, p. 62
  • Fiorillo, Ciro. 1992. “Gaetano Battaglia maiolicaro a Napoli.” In Quaderni dell’Emilceramica: storia e tecnica della ceramica particolarmente nell’arredo domestico e urbano16: 3–8.
  • Municipal Galleries at Palazzo Ciacchi