Wed | Sep 26, 2018

Celebration of Jamaica's heritage

Published:Sunday | June 24, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Bellarmine jars

Bellarmine Jars, Greybeard Jugs, Bartmann flasks, and witch bottles are just a few of the names given to this very interesting round-belly bottle.

According to Richard McClure, Bellarmine Jars, as they are most commonly called, were extensively used to store and transport liquids of all kinds in the 16th and 17th centuries because of the grey stoneware clay that they were made of, and the brown salt glaze which ensured that there could be no loss of the contents through seepage or evaporation.

These jars ranged in sizes from seven to eighteen inches tall, and according to Hume (1969), were made to hold up to five gallons. These jars were always decorated with a bearded human face of varying expressions that was moulded on to the neck of the bottle. These jars also had generally one or more heraldic or pseudo-heraldic medallions on the body of the jar.

Bellarmine Jars were manufactured predominantly in factories in and around the town of Frechen, which is situated in the city of Cologne in Germany (Hume 1969).

It has been suggested that the bottles got their name from the Roman Catholic Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine. Bellarmine was widely disliked by Protestants because he published a great deal of anti-Protestant literature in Holland. He was also a very bitter opponent of the Dutch Reformed Church.

According to the Harborough Museum, many persons believed that the face on the bottle was a caricature of him, and it became common for Protestants who disliked him to smash the jugs and shout his name. However, this claim has been refuted by both Hume and Holmes.

 

REFUTED CLAIMS

 

According to Hume, early versions of Bellarmine bottles were in use long before the birth of Bellarmine and even longer before he would have published his anti-Protestant works. The medallions that were used as a decorative device on the bottles were frequently dated, and the earliest-known specimen is marked with the year 1550, when Bellarmine would have only been eight years old. Holmes (1951) agrees with Hume and offers even more evidence that suggests that the jars could not have been named after the cardinal.

Holmes states that when Fynes Moryson visited the cardinal Bellarmine in Rome in 1594, Moryson described him as being of slim built and with a long-slim face with a small, sharp beard on his chin, which is in sharp contrast to the characteristics of the jars, which seem to bear the resemblance to a jolly, fat man.

The typical Bellarmine Jar was tall with a tubular spout and featured the face of a bearded man. The shape and length of the beards as well as the expression on the faces varied according to maker. According to Jamaican ceramicist Norma Rodney Harrack (2002), the bearded masks "are regarded as the single most diagnostic feature in identifying Bellarmines."

As mentioned earlier, many jars also featured heraldic seals and medallions as well as the date and initials of the maker. Some Bellarmines also have small handles and hand-turned incised rings terminating at the lip of the pot, which, according to Harrack, are made for the purpose of accommodating a lid or cover, obviously to protect the contents from dust and insects".

Currently, National Museum Jamaica is the home of four Bellarmine Jars of various sizes that were unearthed in various places around Jamaica, with one currently being displayed at the Fort Charles Museum in Port Royal. The one pictured, however, measures at only twenty-one centimetres in height and according to the information provided by the Collections department of the museum, this jar was found in Forrest Hills, upper St Andrew, in 1950 and contained coins that are believed to be from the 17th century.

Harrack describes this Bellarmine Jar as having a "perky brown orange-peel semi-matt salt glaze and one seal on its perfectly rounded belly and bellow its bearded face". Though broken and missing its handle, this jar also features a rosette-type seal that has eight petals. These bottles, though simple, are very important to Jamaica's history because it illustrates the fact that Port Royal, in its heyday, was a very import trading post for sailors, adventurers, and pilots navigating the Caribbean Sea. Numerous shards of Bellarmine bottles have been found in the Port Royal area.

 

References

 

Harborough Museum. (2018). Bellarmine Bottle.

Retrieved from http://www.harboroughmuseum.org.uk/bellarmine-bottle/.

Holmes, M.R. (1951). The So-Called 'Bellarmine' Mask on Imported Renish stoneware. The Antiques Journal: London.

Hume, I, N. (1969). A Guide to artefacts of Colonial America. Alfred A Knopf, New York. 1976.

McClure, R. (1992). Late 17th C Bellarmine Bottle. Jamaica Journal. Institute of Jamaica.

Rodney Harrack, N. (2002). Bellarmine: Beards and Bellies

- Information Compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica