Extravagant table pieces were a common feature in the homes of wealthy Europeans in the 16th century. Elaborate pieces in the popular shape of a ship made of silver or gold would stand in the middle of the table as a sign of wealth and prestige. Centerpieces had a mostly decorative role but were sometimes used for holding expensive spices, napkins, cutlery or wine. While some of them had wheels so they could be easily moved across the table, the majority stood on legs or pedestals.
One such example is the Schlüsselfelder Ship, the most famous work of the Nuremberg goldsmiths in 16th century Germany. Nuremberg was well known for its metal work from the 14th to 16th centuries. In the early 1500s, there were over 120 registered goldsmiths in the city.
The creator of the Schlüsselfelder Ship is unknown, but German art historian Heinrich Kohlhaussen believed that this masterpiece came from the hands of Albrecht Dürer the Elder, father of the famous Nuremberg painter Albrecht Dürer. Dürer the Elder died in 1502 so the Schlüsselfelder Ship was likely finished by some of the other goldsmiths working in Nuremberg at the same time.
The client who ordered the ship is also unknown. It is believed that it was made for Matthäus Landauer, a German brass and copper merchant. His sister was the mother of the first confirmed owner of the Schlüsselfelder Ship, Wilhelm Schlüsselfelder. In his will, Landauer left a fortune to his nephew and the silver ship may have been a part of the inheritance.
The Schlüsselfelder Ship is proof of the amazing craftsmanship of Nuremberg goldsmiths. It is a very detailed silver, partly gilded reproduction of a carrack, a merchant ship widely used in Netherlands and the Mediterranean since the 14th century.
The ship has a wooden case in which it is placed in order to protect it from damage and preserve it through the years. The wooden case is covered with black leather and the interior is lined with red velvet. The leather cover is marked with the date 1503, so the Schlüsselfelder Ship was either made that same year or the year before. The ship is not simply a decorative table piece, it is actually a wine pitcher; the bottom piece serves as a wine container that could hold more than two liters of liquid and the upper structure is a lid that can be lifted.
As stated by the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, the silver ship is 31 inches high, 17 inches wide and it weighs around 13lbs. A mermaid with two tails is located on the ship’s base. She has her head and arms raised and holds the main body. The letter “N” is engraved on the sail, the Nuremberg silver hallmark. There is an amazingly detailed dragon’s head in the front that serves as the ship’s figurehead.
The intricately crafted ship has three masts and each has a crow’s nest full of sailors with weapons. There are several waving flags with imprinted images of saints on them. The flag in the front carries a glazed Schlüsselfelder coat of arms. There are cannons on both sides of the ship, usual for a merchant ship in order to protect the crew and the load.
There are 74 cast figures of people comprising the ship’s crew and passengers who are engaged in all sorts of activities.
There are sailors going up and down on the ladders, people around a table eating and drinking, there are musicians performing and men playing cards, a monk reading a book and another meditating, two lovers embracing and several others. There were probably more figures initially but some of them were lost.
The table piece is extremely well-preserved considering its age and intricacy. Apart from minor damage and some of the figures being lost, the Schlüsselfelder family who had it in their possession for centuries kept it in perfect condition. The ship’s case also played a role in the piece’s preservation. It was designed and built in such a way as to provide support for the three masts, the figurehead, and many other details. The Schlüsselfelder Ship is on display in Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg.