Tiny in scale, the scene painted on this spoon is loaded with meaning: a fox dressed as a hooded monk reads the word “pax” (peace) from a podium to lull geese into an inattentive state. Below, a small fox snatches a goose by the neck. Both moments recall episodes from the medieval French epic “Roman de Renart.” Various authors played a part in creating this collection of about 28 tales of this guileful fox—a hero, much like our modern Bugs Bunny—who uses his cunning to escape capture and catch his prey. By the time this spoon was made, the character of Renart the fox was a few centuries old. It celebrated the sly wits of a fox over brute strength or false piety, especially of the church. The satire portrays animals with human traits to distance the authors from any criticism they may have received from contemporary clergy or government.
The spoon is one of the finest of its kind. It is believed to have been made around 1430 as part of a dinner set for Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, who led Burgundy at the zenith of its prosperity. Throughout his reign, Phillip struggled with the church over his philandering with various mistresses and wives; he would have been sympathetic to this lampoon of the clergy. Does the fact that the image is in the bowl of the spoon suggest a double meaning with reference to the utility it serves? Is the artist’s placement of the image a chosen metaphor for the perceived nonsense that must be swallowed from medieval institutions? 1430 was the year that Phillip instituted the order of the Golden Fleece, an order of Knights to commemorate his wedding to his third wife Isabella of Portugal. Was this spoon and its set made to mark his own cunning romantic and political feats?
Above: Spoon, South Netherlandish, Medieval (Gothic), about 1430. Painted enamel and gilding on silver. Helen and Alice Colburn Fund. 51.2472
John Moore is a security officer in Protective Services.