Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Figure of the Day: A Fool's Head, the Jet Jester, 1550-1700

Spanish Jet Figure, 1550-1700
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Small figures of jet (a particularly dense type of coal which can be carved and polished) like the one pictured above, especially in Spain, were created to seems to signify that a pilgrim had completed his or her journey, and reached the shrine of St James (the patron Saint of Spain) at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.  This was a trek which pilgrims made for well over the course of six hundred years, from the twelfth to the eighteenth century.

Many jet figures like this seem to have been drilled with holes to form beads for rosaries.  From the earliest times, medicinal and magical qualities were assigned to jet which could be found in different parts of Europe (as well as North America).

This jet piece, which is larger than most, represents a fool's head and its precise function is uncertain. Perhaps it was the pommel of a jester's stick and may have been used during the “Feasts of Fools” when “the holiest offices and orders were made matters of the lightest jesting.”

 The grinning portrait head has stylized tightly-curled hair, a large nose, wrinkled forehead and a ruff-like collar set on a bulbous base, on which are carved three shells. A smooth disc is carved on the back.  It was made in Spain between 1550 and 1700.

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