Silver, seolfor, silibar: the name rings ethereal, however you say it. It has captured mans avarice since early times, depicted in so many folklores as a crescent moon.
This is the Ariel of metals. Moonlight in solid form.
Roman coins were silver: they developed technology to mine 200 tonnes a year, and are thought to have had 10,000 tonnes circulating in the middle of the second century AD – dwarfing the amount available to mediaeval Europe.
The Crusades and warriors brought back special things: relics, bits of saints and such: each must be housed in intricately worked silver. The sophistication of those early craftsmen beggars belief: for according to Montague Howard in his book Old London Silver, Its Makers and its Marks, they must be jack of many trades – modeller, sculptor, smelter, enameler, jewel-mounter and inlayer.
They melted down huge quantities of church silver in the late 12th century – some 23 tonnes – to pay the ransom of Richard the Lionheart.
Powerful, these craftsmen were: during the 1400s six mayors of London were silversmiths.
But the power of silver is not always linked with the purest and most silver of motives. On the contrary: folklore will keep linking it with Lucifer.
There is the tale of that renowned tenth century silversmith St Dunstan, who had a forge at Glastonbury. One day a beautiful girl turned up to flirt. But despite all her contrivances the saint did not once look up from his silverworking. Finally as she danced more and more wildly about the room he caught sight of hooves beneath her skirts, and recognised her for the Devil in disguise. He despatched her by applying a pair of red-hot tongs to her nose.
Or how about Grimm’s girl with the silver hands: a poor miller made a deal with the devil: riches for what ever lay behind the mill. Alas, that turned out to be his daughter.
But the daughter was just too good for Lucifer. He couldn’t get his hands on her and so in a nasty turn of events he chopped off her hands in a fit of pique.
It was the girl’s good fortune to be espied by the King, who fell deeply in love with this spotless maiden and fashioned silver hands for her to use. But when the King went to war the devil spent his time tampering with the letters of the lovelorn. He changed news of an heir to news of a changeling; and when the King wrote back saying the babe should be cared for regardless, the devil made a few marks and managed to create orders to have the young queen and her son put to death.
The queen and her little one fled into the forest and it took the King seven years to find them: by which time God had rewarded the queen’s time in the wilderness by giving her back her back her real hands.
Silver. When you find a beautifully fashioned piece of silversmithing, cast your eyes about carefully; for His Excellency the Prince of Darkness may be dissembling to meddle, close at hand.
All this is distilled in a strange set of pieces which sits in the middle of the vast collection of silver at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
The collection’s curators freely admit that this particular set of sauceboats is among the most puzzling of all the pieces of silver in the museums vast and impressive array.
The two sauceboats date from 1740-1750. The name of the maker is indistinct, and while there are clear influences, no-one can say for sure who made them.
Ordinarily any ornament would be made separately to the casting of the container: but these, made with the crest of English noble family the Champneys, are each made out of two gorgeous halves, with an integral four-legged figure crouched greedily over their contents.
And what is the identity of the creature dominating this exquisite silver?
Museum curators dub it a dragon.
But look closely: it has a nose like a crocodile, or a broad-snouted fighting dog, and pointy ears. Its limbs are brawny and thick-set and it has the great wide wings of a bat.It regards its quarry with a penetrating stare. And it ever so slightly gives the observer the impression it is coming for them, the moment it has secured its prey from within the depths of the silverware.
Sound familiar? We have met this creature already this week.
Our devilish friend is harassing the dinner service now, it seems. This is no dragon, but the devil in the pale moonlight of silver.
We are left, today, with more questions than answers. Why would the Champneys want silverware with such overt symbolism? Under what strange circumstances were they fashioned, and under what philosophy?
I sense we are only just tarnishing the surface of this particular piece of silverware.