This tankard is a remarkable survival of early Ottoman metalwork of the highest quality. Whilst a small number of other comparable tankards survive, few retain all the original elements including the lid, handle and chain. The rarity of a piece surviving with the tughra of Murad III, if this is indeed the reading, is further impressive in that it is recorded that the imperial treasury, although spared the depredations of a foreign enemy, was raided on several occasions by the Sultan himself, in attempts to bolster his military finances. He is said to have melted many silver and gold objects into coin (Yanni Petsopoulos (ed.), Tulips, Arabesques & Turbans, London, 1982, p. 21).
Marian Wenzel has made the compelling argument that this group of vessels was probably produced in, or by craftsmen from, the Balkans (Marian Wenzel, 'Early Ottoman Silver and Iznik Pottery Design', Apollo, September 1989, p.160). The military annexation of the Balkans bought about the integration of the rich silver mines of Bosnia and Serbia into the Ottoman Empire, and as a consequence also lured the skilled silversmiths to Istanbul. Marthe Bernus-Taylor highlights the gifting of metalwork from the Balkans to Ottoman Sultans and the Central European stock of a number of the wives, mothers and viziers of the Sultans of the 15th and 16th centuries as further explanation for the strong inter-cultural exchange (Marthe Bernus-Taylor, Turquie au Nom de la Tulipe, Paris, 1993, p. 33).
A very similar tankard, previously in the City Art Museum, St. Louis (inv. No. 34:25) was more closely attributed as Northern Greek or Macedonian, on account of the filigree braid and pellets found also in the present example. This is a feature which typifies objects produced there between the 15th and 18th centuries. Furthermore, it is said that the present tankard was originally obtained in North Greece strongly supporting a similar attribution. The decoration of the present tankard, and indeed the aforementioned St. Louis tankard is arranged on three registers, each focused on a dominant motif at the point opposite to the handle. The imagery appears to mingle mythological or Paradise motifs with vicious creatures attacking their prey and combines the earlier medieval styles of Serbia and Ragusa (Dubrovnik).
The Serbian iconography relates to Byzantine models which are often religious and draws on the contrast between paradise, exemplified by the harpies wearing crowns which are associated with Serbian personifications of Paradise as a woman, (Wenzel, op. cit., p. 164) and earthly life (seen in the lively hunting scenes). The Ragusan iconography is more courtly or heraldic. Dragons, as seen on the present tankard, were a common decorative motif (perhaps because of their connection with a Hungarian knightly order to which both Serbian and Bosnian nobility belonged) (Wenzel, op. cit., p. 162).
Whether or not they find their origins in the Balkans, it is obvious that a number of the decorative motifs described above made their way into and were popular in Ottoman Turkey. The crown-wearing harpies are characteristically Ottoman and are a popular motif on Iznik dishes (see for example an Iznik dish in a private collection, Wenzel, op. cit., no. XIII, p. 165). A precise parallel for the vase motif at the centre of the lower tier of the decoration is found in an Ottoman silver bowl attributed to Istanbul, early 16th century, now in a private collection. This proves that this Balkan influenced decoration was already being produced in Turkey well before the period of Murad III. Furthermore, the flowers in the ground of the jug are of the Abraham of Kutahya style developed in Turkey in the late 15th/early 16th century. It seems very possible therefore that this tankard was made in Turkey.
The fact that our tankard has a tughra adds further weight to a Turkish attribution. Garo Kürkman talks of foreign silver being sent to the Mint for assaying and marking when it was imported into Ottoman Turkey and before it was sold (Ottoman Silver Marks, Istanbul, 1996, p. 34). However, the first example that he cites is from the period of Murad V (1876), and it seems unlikely therefore that this practice was undertaken before the 19th century.
The tradition for these silver or silver gilt bowls and jugs is thought to have been a basis on which elements of both form and decoration found on the Iznik wares of the 1560s-80s were founded. Atasoy and Raby use the present piece to illustrate the coherence between this shape and that of a rare variant of Iznik pottery tankards (marapas), with sloping sides and curved handles. The earliest datable examples of these are circa 1570, and this would therefore support the reading of the tughra as Murad III rather than Murad IV (Iznik. The Pottery of Ottoman Turkey, London, 1989, p. 276).
Two other tankards of this group with similar animal motifs have appeared at auction, both at Sotheby's, 12 October 1988, lot 85 and 10 October 1991, lot 351. Another was exhibited by E. Grünberg and E.M.Torn (Four Centuries of Ottoman Taste (exhibition catalogue), London, 1988, no. 24). Two, one of which one retains its lid, are in a private collection (Marthe Bernus-Taylor, op. cit., no. 20 and 26).