CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Klatergoud en zilveren bellen: een verzameling rammelaars

Corals and bells: a collection of rattles Exhibition: 6 October 2009 - 10 January 2010

From the museum website, 1 July 2009

After the MARTa in Herford (Germany), Sterckshof Silver Museum is proud to be the first museum in Belgium to present a large private collection of rattles. The silver and gold rattles and jingling bells finished with precious materials such as rock-crystal, ivory and red coral are shown alongside charming miniatures and arresting children‘s portraits by painters like Théo Van Rysselberghe.

Rattles are among the oldest toys in the world. They appear in pre-Columbian America, in Pharaoh‘s Egypt and even in the Hittite kingdom. It is thought that during the earliest civilizations rattles consisted of a dried fruit whose seeds sounded like little bells when shaken. So it is hardly surprising that the oldest known examples, which are made of earthenware and bronze, are in the shape of a gourd or pomegranate.

Though a rattle was first and foremost a small toy used to distract the young child and calm it when teething, it was always believed that the object had exorcising and protective powers as well. It was thought to avert calamity and to help dispel evil.

A rattle was considered the ideal object to protect the child from illness and adversity; it was seen as a guarantee of a long and happy life. At a time when the infant mortality rate was very high because there was no known cure for a whole host of illnesses, the rattle served as an amulet. Great importance was attached to it and hope drawn from it.

Materials like coral, rock-crystal and wolf‘s tooth were used for rattles
not only because of their beauty, but also because of the special, supernatural powers attributed to these costly materials. Wolf‘s tooth, for example, symbolized power. It was supposed to transfer power from the animal to the child and in that way protect it against danger. Coral was widely known as a defence against evil, while rock-crystal was reputed to soothe wounds. In other words, a rattle was once much more than just a toy.

Besides the historical collection of rattles, the exhibition Corals and Bells. A Collection of Rattles also shows a series of (miniature) portraits of children depicted with their rattle. The rattles in these paintings are made of silver or gold and have a handle made of red coral, rock-crystal or wolf‘s tooth. These sort of rattles began to appear in children‘s portraits at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Later on the basic design was elaborated on by adding a whistle or little bells. These accessories were also believed to dispel evil spirits.

The use of costly materials largely determines a rattle‘s price tag and can make it very valuable. But not everyone favoured such sophisticated
toys. For example in his book Emile ou de l’éducation (1762), the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau criticized these luxury rattles because they accustomed children to opulence at a very young age. Rousseau believed that a twig, a stick of liquorice or a poppy head is equally effective when it comes to distracting or entertaining a child.

Not until the nineteenth century was the rattle popularized. Inexpensive
pewter versions appeared for the first time. Many were in the shape of a mini-drum filled with dried grain which produced a jingling sound when shaken. In the same period rattles were also produced depicting an important person or commemorating a significant event. In the twentieth century plastic became the material of choice and rattles were mass-produced.

One of the most striking aspects of the Corals and Bells exhibition is the sheer variety of jingling toys, both in terms of their shape and decoration. The private collection comprises 167 rattles which cover the period from the beginning of the eighteenth century through to the middle of the last century. They were made in Belgium, England, France, the Netherlands and Spain. The objects are shown alongside captivating miniature portraits and portraits of children depicting the tiny owner holding his or her rattle.

Visit the Corals and Bells exhibition from October 6th 2009 to January 10th 2010 and you will see the child, its toy and reproductions of both in their historical context.

To tie in with the exhibition, Sterckshof Silver Museum is producing a catalogue containing illustrations of the artworks and objects on show. The publication is Number 39 in the Sterckshof Studies series and includes articles by Marc Jacobs, Director of FARO (Flemish Centre
for Cultural Heritage), and by Annemarieke Willemsen, Curator Middle Ages Collection at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden) in Leiden. The exhibition is realized in association with Emil Fonfoneata.