A visit to the British Museum’s excellent current exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World revealed a wonderful silver gilt sculptural cup and cover designed as a Moor’s head. The cup, on loan from the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, was made by Christoph Jamnitzer in Nuremburg circa 1602. The cup was on display within the context of the cultural sources for Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice (first staged 1603-4). It is thought that the cup, which is painted and embellished with rock crystal, may have been a trophy object but, as the accompanying label stated, the use of a headband and single ear pendent also betray strong heraldic associations.
The “Moor’s head”, often enhanced with head band and single earring, is a common heraldic device, one shared by many families in differing forms. It is also one of the most controversial family crests occasionally prompting the owner to apologise for a perceived ancestral connection to the slave trade.
However, the cup, and associated family crest, clearly display a “Noble Moor” so I suggest that the use of a Moor’s head in armorial bearings often has more complicated, and high status sources than an obvious universal link to the abuse of black slaves. Several families – such as the Moores, Moorheads and Blackamores- have a clear historic, probably medieval link to this heraldic device which may have been displayed on their ancestors’ arms which formed the basis for the naming of the wearer. There is a suggestion is that the arms were earned and displayed during the Crusades in the 11th to 14th centuries when the “Moors” of the middle east were highly respected as formidable foes and warriors. As the British forged trading links in the Middle East and North then West Africa, merchants may also have adopted the device to display hard earned rising status and their sphere of commercial interest: to advertise their business, if you like.
The rapid growth in the trading of slaves from West Africa in the 17th and 18th century casts a pall over an image that had such dignified and noble origins. Undoubtedly, crests were mawkishly developed to display personal involvement with the trade. For instance, there is little ambiguity in the crest of a “A blackamoor’s head in profile gorged with a collar”:
The mute power and impact of a family crest was displayed to a better and highly meaningful purpose by Thomas Fowell Buxton, a leading campaigner for the abolition of slavery, who poignantly charged his family’s crest of a Buck’s head with a shield depicting the head of a slave:
Silver decorated with variations of the Moor’s head crest is frequently listed for sale at myfamilysilver.com. A recent example is this teapot from a three piece tea set made in London 1807-8 (coincidentally, at the the height of the debate of the abolition of slavery) which is engraved with a crest closely matching the cup and cover made two hundred years previously: