Bellarmine jug is ‘fine specimen’

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by Jeannie Swales

This week’s exhibit is a fine, and almost completely undamaged, specimen of a Bellarmine jug.

Also known as Bartmann, or Bearded Man, jugs, these stoneware vessels were commonly manufactured in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in the Cologne area of Germany, with production centred on the town of Frechen.

Bellarmine jugs are defined by the image of the bearded man – possibly depicting a mythical wild man from the folklore of the period. They also often bear other decoration – in our example, a stylized floral motif, but images of trees, leaves and coats of arms were also common. The bearded man is the only consistent element of their design.

The pitted appearance of their brown glaze derives from the practice of throwing salt into the kiln where the pottery is firing – the salt vaporises, and gives the characteristic ‘orange peel’ look.

The name ‘Bellarmine’ is often thought to have come about in the early 1600s, when the Italian Jesuit Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino was the enemy of the Protestants in Northern Germany and the Low Countries, and was possibly lampooned in the rotund shape of the jug, its grotesque embellishment, and its common use for alcohol – the Cardinal was staunchly teetotal. However, this seems unlikely: examples of Bellarmine jugs have been found that date to the Cardinal’s childhood.

But Bellarmines also served a much more sinister purpose in the 1600s.

This was a time when witchcraft – or, rather, the belief in it – was rife, and Bearded Man jugs were often used as ‘witch bottles’.

If someone believed they had been put under a witch’s spell, they could counter it by putting their own urine or other bodily fluids, fingernail trimmings and bits of hair into a witch bottle, along with iron nails, then boil the mixture up.

The bottle and its contents would then be buried inside the victim’s house, either at the farthest corner of the property, plastered into a wall, or under the hearth – they’re still sometimes excavated intact from old houses today. It was believed that the bottle would then magically capture the evil spirit which haunted the house’s occupant.

Sometimes the bottle would be put onto the household fire, and when it exploded in the heat, it was believed that the witch would die.

The Bellarmine jug is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork owned by the borough. For further information, please contact collections manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or (01723) 384510.