Hubble-bubble with the Witches’ Brew Bowl
As it is Halloween it’s timely to look at a rather unusual bowl currently on display in the Industrial Gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It is a small, deep bowl, about the diameter of a pudding dish and all over the external surface there are carvings of animals and curious oval mounds which look a bit like walnuts. The carvings are both technically proficient and full of emotional appeal. The backs of the animals are smooth from handling over the years and the snake’s body curves round the bowl in a way which almost gives the impression that it is alive. All in all it is an intriguing object but sadly that does not mean that we can be 100% certain about what it is.
The bowl came to the Museum as part of a collection of over 7,000 wooden objects built up over several decades by Edward Pinto. He called it a Witches’ Brew Bowl and put its date at somewhere in the 18th century. This may all sound rather vague but wooden objects are notoriously difficult to date with pin-point accuracy. They do not tend to reflect changing fashions in the way ceramics or textiles can and unless they come with a supporting historical context it is possible to end up attaching quite a wide range of dates to them.
Although he did not acquire the bowl from a Witch he had good reasons for giving it this name. All the creatures carved on the bowl represent remedies used in medicine before the middle of the 19th century. Powdered toads and snake flesh were believed to be a cure for poisoning and dried toads were used to treat plague victims. Syrup made from snails was good for coughs and colds and blood from dragons, or perhaps more usefully lizards, was said to clear boils. The curious ‘walnut’ shapes probably represent brains. Powdered animal brains were used for a number of complaints; mice were believed to be especially good for the teeth.
However, the carvings also represent animals which were associated with witchcraft. Belief in traditional cures, methods and witchcraft were still very much a part of life in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was especially true in rural areas where people were not so influenced by the fashionable, new ideas about medicine which were starting to gain a foothold in the larger towns. A bowl like this could therefore not just represent traditional medical practices; possibly, drinking from such a carved bowl could act as a protection against witchcraft.
We will have to leave you to make up your own mind…
Curator (Applied Art)
For more Halloween themed images please look at the spooky x-rays on our BMAG Facebook page.