A Little Box of Death

Tucked away in a corner of the Rijksmuseum, and at only a few centimeters high, this small sculpture of a skull in a little leather box is easy to miss.

Each tooth has been delicately carved (about half of which are intentionally missing or cracked), and the custom case has been constructed carefully in three parts: a base, a top piece that covers half of the base and is sealed firmly in place, and a detachable cover that, when in place, serves to fully encase the skull. The detachable cover fits into the stationary one, and is secured in place by three hooks. The base is propped up on four gilded, and individually fastened, griffins’ feet.

Albert Jansz. Vinckenbrinck, Doodshooft met foedraal [skull with case], ca. 1650. Buxus, shagreen, copper and velvet. Skull: h 4 cm, case: h 6.5 x w 6 x d 7 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

One of the most striking things about this skull is the level of detail and naturalism, despite its small scale. Although the surface is smooth showing no immediate signs of a craftsman or artist’s hand—there are no chisel marks in the wood, for example—this is not to say that the surface is unblemished. This skull is not meant to be one of someone recently deceased. Teeth are missing, the cheekbone is worn, and there are small losses of bone in and around the occipital and nasal cavities. While some of this “wear” could have easily occurred over centuries of handling and transporting the object, it seems that at least some of the “damage” was intentional and contributed to the initial semiotic value of the piece. It is important to note also that the skull is not white, or even off-white. It is a light brown, like a skull buried for centuries and later exhumed. This color is the result of both the sculptor’s use of wood as his medium (he could have used ivory, for instance, which would have created a very different effect) and the subsequent decision to leave the wood’s natural color intact. It is possible, of course, that the color of the wood has been altered naturally, growing darker with the passage of time or by continued contact with the oils of its owners’ hands.

Although the object does not seem to have been intentionally polished, the top of the skull, compared to the rest of the object, is rather glossy from what could possibly be the owner frequently rubbing his thumb over it. I assume that the object would have been held and carried around by the owner not only because of this wear to the top of the skull, but also because of its size and accompanying case. It is small enough to fit comfortably in the hand or in a pocket, with or without the case, and the presence of the case suggests a level of portability (especially given the latches, which would have secured the object safely during movement). Additionally, the case, when closed, resembles a box one might use for rings or small pieces of jewelry. This suggests that the contents within the case would have been perceived as precious or valuable.

My understanding of this object is, however, somewhat colored by the location in which I encountered it: in the Rijksmuseum, surrounded by glass and silver wares typical of those found in seventeenth-century Dutch still-life paintings. The presence of a skull among these other objects in the gallery, however, should not come as a surprise, as skulls, too, featured prominently in Golden Age Dutch still life paintings. This genre of painting, known as vanitas from the Latin noun meaning “emptiness,” became extremely popular in Flanders and the Netherlands during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They were highly symbolic and were meant to evoke the “emptiness”—that is to say the futility—of earthly life and material goods. Vanitas were characterized by naturalistic renderings of fruit, flowers, timepieces and snuffed-out flames indicating decay, the brevity of life, and the suddenness of death. Luxury goods (silver, gold, jewels, fabrics, etc.) also played a key role, often being shown knocked over or in other ways hastily abandoned by man, who has always inexplicably disappeared from the scene but remains indexically “present” in the objects he presumably once touched. The skull’s use in these paintings is perhaps not surprising, and acted as an additional memento mori, or reminder of the certainty of death. Positioned amongst these commercial goods, the skull reminded the viewer that the body, too, was material and would be left to rot after their soul departed gone. Although the skulls in theses types of paintings were generally depicted as being life size, the association between this object and Dutch still life paintings led me to believe that both were apart of the same representational economy.

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628. Oil on wood. 24.1 x 35.9 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

According to a monogram on the back of the skull, it is the work of Albert Jansz. Vinckenbrinck (1604/5–1664/5). Vinckenbrink was a Dutch sculptor working in Amsterdam in the middle of the seventeenth century who specialized in small boxwood carvings of Biblical subjects and moralizing genre scenes. An inventory conducted by his sons and wife following his death lists a “little skull, with a little shoulder bone and little femur” carved in boxwood. The same object appears in an inventory of the collection of S.W. Josephus Jitta from 1876, but there is no indication of how Josephus Jitta (an Amsterdam city council member) acquired the skull. We do know, however, that it was already in his collection by the 1850’s, as it is mentioned in an exhibition catalogue from the spring of 1858 as being on loan from him.

Neither the 1876 inventory or the 1858 catalog make mention of the little shoulder bone or femur that are mention in the Vinckenbrinck inventory, suggesting that these two accompanying carved pieces had been lost at some point in the two-hundred year period between its date of creation and its having entered Josephus Jitta’s collection (and, indeed, the current object text in the Rijksmuseum also makes no mention of these other two pieces either). But when did they go missing?

It is also important to note here that none of these three documents makes mention of the leather case. Because Vinckenbrink seems to have only worked in wood, I assumed that the case was not his design and was thus an owner’s later addition. It seems very likely that by the time the case was added the small shoulder and femur had already been missing since the case so perfectly fits the skull and leaves little room for any other pieces to be contained with it. But when was it added and by which owner? Was the case added because these pieces had been lost and someone sought to protect what remained of the vanitas? With no mention of the case in the inventories a clear date was difficult to discern, and so I turned to the materials. Because the case had reminded me of a small ring box, I first began searching for potential contemporaneous equivalents.

Mourning Rings and Boxes, William Dawes, ca. 1800. Rose gold, hair, pearls, brass and leather.

William Dawes, Mourning Rings and Boxes, ca. 1800. Rose gold, hair, pearls, brass and leather. While I have yet to find anything from the seventeenth century that quite resembled this box, I began to think further about its materials and design. In East Asia, shagreen leather (which covers the outside of skull’s case) had been in use for centuries, but from the eighteenth century on it also became a luxury material in Europe for small boxes and cases. I also noticed a strange similarity between the case used for this miniature skull and ring boxes used for storing mourning jewelry of the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Particularly similarities can be found in the latches, which are similarly constructed and seemingly of the same material. I take for example a maroon leather ring box of 1799 that was produced in Boston. The similarities to the Boston ring box not only allow a possible dating of the case, but also allow us to see the contents of each box as being related. That is to say that because of this connection we may begin to see this wooden skull, which was originally a seventeenth-century vanitas, as being reterritorialized within a Victorian mourning tradition through the addition of a case by an owner who occupied a different representational economy than that of the “original” object.

It is a given that objects change over time, and that they acquire new contexts as they pass from creator to owner(s) or to collector(s). Some objects, like the Rijksmuseum’s doodshoofd met foedraal, bear many signs of different “lives” that we fail to see because of their current life. We see this object today in a museum vitrine surrounded by seventeenth-century Dutch wares and assume it fits neatly into the category of “objects found in a vanitas still life from seventeenth-century Amsterdam,” but it does not. A close analysis of its materials (and the one I’ve provided here is just the tip of the iceberg) makes clear that the museum’s categorization is not indicative of the objects actual semiotic value. In attempting to place the object in an “original” context, the museum actually creates a novel context that blurs the lives that came before, and allows for new lives of the object to evolve as it is continually encountered by museum-goers.

Selected References:
Catalogus der tentoonstelling van voorwerpen uit vroegeren tijd, in het gebouw der      Maatschappij: Arti et Amicitiae, ten behoeve van het weduwenen weduwenfonds, 1858.

“Doodshoofd met foedraal, Albert Jansz. Vinckenbrink, ca. 1650,” Rijksmuseum, accessed February 18, 2018. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/collectie/BK-KOG-2486.

Willy Halsema-Kubes, “Kleinplastiek van Albert Jansz. Vinckenbrink,” Bulletin van het   Rijksmuseum 39:4 (1991): 414–425.


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