The Cup of ‘88
Margarete Seeler (American (Germany), 1909–1996)
Object Place: Kennebunkport, Maine, United States
15.24 cm (6 in.)
Medium or Technique
Silver gilt, gold wire, polychrome enamel, ivory
Not On View
The standing cup bears polychromed enamel decoration depicting the birth and potential death of the world, expressed through religious and secular iconography. One side of the cup depicts a couple raising a child above their shoulders. To the left of the couple are a seated cow and a tree of knowledge, decorated with flowers, a bird, and a snake. To the right is a stand of flowers and birds, with “GENESIS / 1/26.27.28,” formed by cloison wire, referring to God’s creation of the world. Small fish create a border between the cup and stem. Below the family is a seated draped skeleton holding the atomic symbol in his right hand. In his left is a rope that secures a kneeling man to a ball and chain. To the right of the skeleton is the symbol “$” and two missiles.
Opposite the scene, the Angel Gabriel, with wings outstretched, plunges an arrow into a flaming crescent-shaped dragon at his feet. Below them is a nuclear explosion in which a mushroom cloud rises above flames and water. Burning ruins are to the left; a woman shielding a child is at the right, along with “GENESIS 1.27.”
Few twentieth-century decorative artists have chosen moral themes, but Margarete Seeler dedicated much of her career to such subjects. Her ineffably beautiful and often haunting enamels are suffused with the urgent message that humanity must find a way to care for itself or risk tragic consequences. She was born in Germany to printer and stationer Otto and Rose (Kempe) Seeler and barely survived World War II while living in Berlin with her two young sons. Some of her greatest enameled works bear witness to the cruelties wrought by war even as they resolutely retain hope for the future. Despite all she had seen, Seeler remained steadfast in her love of humanity and its potential.
A student at the Berlin Academy of Art (Vereinigte Staatschulen für frei und angewandte Kunst), Seeler studied drawing, painting, goldsmithing, and enameling; she graduated about 1935. Among her professors were painter Bruno Paul (1874 – 1968) and anatomy professor Wilhelm Tank (b. 1888). She spent the next two years traveling around the world, drawing and painting along the way. From Italy, she traveled to Bali and India. In 1937 she returned to Berlin and married silversmith Herbert Zeitner (1900 – 1986), her former professor. The two later separated, leaving Seeler to raise their two children.
Seeler immigrated to the United States about 1957. She taught at the Putney School in Vermont until 1959 and then at the Wichita Art Association from 1959 to about 1961. Shortly afterward, she embarked on private studio work in Weston, Connecticut, where she occasionally collaborated with pewter artist Frances Felton. In 1980 she moved to Kennebunkport, Maine, and worked continuously until her death in 1996.
Much like an illuminated manuscript or a richly worked medieval chalice, this cup relies on brilliant colors and memorable biblical passages to convey a message. Using two paired images, representing the Old Testament and the modern apocalypse of nuclear war, Seeler distilled her hopes and fears for the future. By featuring images of a family and the archangel Michael, she implies that hope prevails over the devastation unleashed by nuclear war.
A close look at Seeler’s enamels and her technical books reveal the painstaking efforts she took in creating a fully realized work of art. Her deft use of fine cloison wires yield lines as supple as those drawn on paper, and her chiaroscuro effects in enamel are worthy of any painter. A consummate artist, she was driven by the content of her work, writing, “We must never forget that design, skill, and precious metals are only the vehicles that give lasting form to a thought.”
Seeler’s enamels are located in American churches, synagogues, and universities; many others were produced as private commissions. Her influence is wide, for many of her important projects were disseminated through her two technical books on enameling.
This text has been adapted from “Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000,” edited by Jeannine Falino and Gerald W.R. Ward, published in 2008 by the MFA. Complete references can be found in that publication.
Using cloisons, text below rim of cup reads " + ET NE NOS INDUCAS IN TENTATIONEM, SE LIBERA NOS A MALO" ["And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil"].** On body of the cup, to the right of the angel Gabriel, "1988;" to the right of Adam and Eve, "GENESIS / 1 . 26. 28. 28." On stem of cup, to left of skeleton, is "GENESIS / 1.27."
**The inscription on the cup incorrectly uses "se" instead of "sed". The proper Latin inscription is: "ET NE NOS INDUCAS IN TENTATIONEM, SED LIBERA NOS A MALO"
The artist's single letter monogram, an "S" within a circle, colored to appear as the symbol of yin and yang, is formed with cloison wire, and appears below the year "1988" on the cup.
The artist gave the cup in 1991 to her son Hans Zeitner and his wife, Therese, who made it a gift to the Museum in 1999.
Gift in honor of Margarete Seeler