A Closer Look

Plaque with the Tree of Jesse


Present-day Germany or France


Height: 4.9 in (12.5 cm); width: 3.2 in (8 cm)

Wyvern Collection, 1820

Embedded in each layer of the Wyvern mother-of-pearl plaque is a unique collection of histories. The shell has travelled far, passing through the hands of south Asian merchants, Rhenish goldsmiths, and prominent European collectors, enduring transformation in both matter and meaning along the way. Composed of thin calcium-carbonate plates secreted by mollusks in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean, mother-of-pearl was once more valuable than gold. The material has been revered by myriad cultures and civilizations since the dawn of time, mentioned in Hindu, Islamic, and Christian religious texts; worn as secular jewelry in ancient Rome, the Near East, and native North America; and used for decoration in Byzantine mosaics, Mayan tombs, and south-East Asian inlay.

During the Middle Ages, returning European merchants and crusaders brought back both the shells and a taste for their precious contents. Fine jewels often served as symbols of rank, and by the twelfth century, the first goldsmith guilds had been formed to cut and shape them. Secular workshops sprang up across western Europe, particularly in the Rhineland, where goldsmiths carved mother-of-pearl by hand or dissolved it in acid for use in plaques, reliquaries, family altars, rosaries, and medallions. The works were mostly circular or polygonal in form, carved on only one side, and seldom painted. Even the most skilled gem cutters found themselves limited by the material, which retains its natural concavity and is easily damaged by excessive manipulation.

Mother-of-pearl relief carvings varied in subject matter, with scenes of the Annunciation, Birth of Christ, Crucifixion, and Saint George appearing most frequently, as in the Metropolitan Museum’s late fifteenth-century medallion of George slaying the dragon. (1) In this regard, the iconography of the Wyvern plaque sets it apart. Carved into the object’s surface is the Tree of Jesse, a schematic representation of the royal lineage of Christ that is based on a biblical passage (Isaiah 1:11) and typically found in late-medieval printed media and stained glass. Why, then, was this image translated into mother-of-pearl, and what does it reveal about the plaque’s function?

The sixteenth century saw the proliferation of the Kunstkammer in central and northern Europe, intimate spaces devoted to the collection of all things beautiful, mysterious, and rare. Conceived as microcosms of the world, these princely “art-rooms” encompassed both man-made and natural wonders in order to showcase the collector’s panoramic education and extraordinary connoisseurship. The select few guests who had access to these chambers would have admired the canvas, copper, and alabaster paintings obscuring every inch of wall; examined the sculptures, skeletons, minerals, and metalwork spilling out of display cabinets; and reclined on monumental furniture featuring exquisite veneers, inlays, panels, and hardstone mounts. For Kunstkammer collectors, value was determined by variety. (2)

The Wyvern plaque belongs amid the array of artifacts that comprised such a collection. It is highly probable that the object caught the eye of a private collector, making its way into the domestic sphere of the European elite, where it was prized for its unusual composition carved in such a coveted material. Ethereal and iridescent, the plaque held particular fascination for all those who encountered it— the traces of time, technique, and culture contained in a single shell.

Olivia Muro, Class of 2020


  1. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986.10.
  2. Impey and MacGregor 1985.