Notable Objects: A 17th Century Mortarium

The hexfoil (or Daisy Wheel) is one of the most easily recognizable of the apotropaic symbols and has been carved into this 17th century apothecary’s mortarium.1 I came across this one in a case at London’s Old Operating Theatre. Interest in the motif has been stimulated by the early work of historian Timothy Easton in the 1990’s (in secular buildings) and later by archaeologist Matthew Champion (predominantly, but not restricted to, ecclesiastical settings).

It is seemingly one of the most propitious symbols found among graffiti corpora. It has an ancient pedigree: often encountered in the sacred art of the Babylonians from whence it traveled up through the eastern Mediterranean and into south-east Europe; it has been used on Roman stelae, it can be found inside the Gundestrup Cauldron of the La Tene early Roman Iron Age (embedded among a cast of mythical creatures) (Plate 1); it has been built into the architecture of the Carolingian Empire and used (alongside nascent Christian symbolism) on the sarcophagus lids of Merovingian kings. In Western Christian art it is often associated with the Virgin Mary.

It has seen a continuity of use – not as an unbroken continuum of belief – but one in which its ‘meaning’ or deployment shifted and morphed from its ‘solar symbol’ beginnings. Cultural context is everything and the ‘re-appropriation’ of motifs by different cultural groups over long time periods is common.

Plate 1: The Gundestrup Cauldron, early Roman Iron Age c. 200 BC – AD 300. (c) Claude Valett WikiCommons

In terms of ritual house protection, Timothy Easton first discovered the compass-drawn design cut into the timber elements of 16th-17th century farm buildings associated with food production in the east of England (1999), whilst Champion (2015:40). has shown that the motif was deployed in both the earlier as well as later medieval periods in ecclesiastical buildings. Further, he has suggested that its ubiquitous association with fonts and childbirth marks it out as something which would have conferred ‘special’ protection to the new-born in this setting.

By the Early Modern Period in Europe (c. AD 1600-1800) it became an almost ubiquitous ornament within ecclesiastical settings, castles and strongholds as well as within the aforementioned agricultural buildings. By the 19th century, it had become incorporated into the folk art of many cultures as a ‘harmless’ good luck symbol or appreciated purely for its aesthetic charm.

A recent post on RPM presented an example whereby it had been marked onto a craftsman’s tools and its association with agricultural implements has been documented. This example shows its close association with the practices of apothecary (who operated on the borderline between magic and science) with the symbol is being deployed to bring its own efficacious qualities to the making of materia medica (medicine).

Notes

  1. Also referred to as a six petal rosette. This post cannot do justice to the full sweep of history within which the motif re-occurs. If this is a rabbit hole that you fancy disappearing down, then can I refer you to Cheryl Hart who has completed her PhD on the symbol? She has several papers available on the subject via the Academia website.

Bibliography

Champion, M (2015) Medieval Graffiti. Ebury Press, London.

Easton, T (1999) ‘Ritual Marks on Historic Timber,’ in, Weald & Downland Open Air Museum Magazine, Spring 1999.

Hart, C (2022) The Rosette Lady.

1 Comment

  1. Hello Wayne, This is a very interesting artefact – one of which I was not aware. Regarding the rosette motif, that was the subject of my PhD research. Although for that I focussed on its use in the ancient world back to 9000 BC, I have continued to research its ongoing use across all contexts. At some point I would be interested in discussing my findings and conclusions with you

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