Today, coconut is a common food, whether baked in a cake, stirred into a curry, or eaten fresh from the shell. Because it is possible to buy coconuts at nearly any supermarket or grocery store, they are not considered especially rare or unusual. But this has not always been the case.
Coconut palms are not native to Europe, and in the past coconuts were imported or traded from faraway places in Asia and the new world. The rarity, cost, and exotic nature of coconut shells meant that they were often treated as precious materials and mounted with silver, gold, enamels, or jewels. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, coconuts were often included in treasuries and chambers of wonders.
The painting shown below depicts a Renaissance goldsmith in his shop in Bruges. On the shelf at right, a coconut mounted as a cup is shown peeking from behind the curtain. The inclusion of the coconut among the goldsmith’s wares, including jewelry, gemstones, and pearls, indicates the rarity—and cost—of coconuts during the Renaissance.
The carved coconut box below recently came to the Objects Conservation lab at the Walters Art Museum in preparation for exhibition. The surface of the coconut shell has been coated with wax sometime in the modern era, making it appear dark and glossy. Traces of tarnished silver remain on the copper alloy mounts and hinges. It is therefore very likely that the metal mounts were originally coated with a thin layer of silver, and would have appeared bright and shiny.
Now that the coconut shell box has been cleaned and stabilized, a custom mount will be made so that it can be safely displayed in the Collector’s Study.
The object below was recently acquired by the Walters Art Museum as part of a large collection of Russian enamels. It was made in Moscow around 1900. Though it looks like a coconut cup, it is in fact wood that has been carved and stained to resemble a coconut. Compared with the Russian coconut cup above (Walters Art Museum 44.194), this object lacks the dark color and speckled surface of true coconut shell. The linear grain of the wood can be seen clearly.
Learn more about the Goldsmith in his Shop, and take a closer look at the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:
“Mounted Bezoar Stones, Seychelles Nuts, and Rhinoceros Horns: Decorative Objects as Antidotes in Early Modern Europe,” by Marnie P. Stark. Studies in the Decorative Arts, Vol. 11 No. 1. 2003-2004. pp. 69-94.
Can coconuts neutralize poison? This article describes the various myths and superstitions surrounding exotic materials in Renaissance Europe, including Seychelles nuts, a type of palm nut related to the coconut.