The brass basins, dishes and bowls created in Nuremberg, Bavaria in the 15th, 16th and 17th century are often referred to by collectors as ‘alms dishes’ hence the collective term Nuremberg Alms Dishes. Although Nuremberg was the leading centre for base metal production in Europe at the time, the manufacture of brass dishes were also made in Dinant and the surrounding area from Bouvingnes to Aachen, and up to the Netherlands. The Nuremberg brass dishes were exported all over Europe including England.
During the period all metals were expensive even brass and the alms dishes produced, although functional, were often purchased by wealthy townspeople who would display decorative domestic objects to give the impression of wealth, style and status to guests. Brass dishes were a less expensive alternative to the silver and gold displayed in the European courts.
The dishes were often embossed and decorated with secular and religious scenes including: Coats of Arms; scenes from the Bible such as the fall of man, the annunciation and The Spies of Canaan; inscriptions; scenes from Classical Mythology; stags, flying harts etc. Some dishes are inscribed with an ownership mark which shows that these objects were significant possessions.
The dishes were embossed by hammering/beating the brass into a steel die. Other features were punched through. Inscriptions and lettering were often added but these were often meaningless. One of the reasons that Nuremberg became the main centre for the production was the strength of the local guilds.
The Nuremberg Guilds
Unlike other production centres which were governed by guilds, Nuremberg craftsmanship was governed by the Town Council. The council was made up members of the most powerful Nuremberg families who controlled the standard of craftsmanship within the town. The strictest professions were the trades bound by oath. Craftsmen had to take an oath to follow strict rules of production in order to be able to practice their trade. The Basin Beaters, who made brass dishes and bowls, became an oath bound trade in 1471. Rules included a restriction on the number of apprentices and journeymen each master could have and a regulation that apprentices must be citizens of Nuremberg. This helped to protect the town’s production and to ensure that no one craftsman became more powerful than the rest. (Source V&A)
As the dishes went out of fashion at the end of the 17th century many found there way into the churches and were used as ‘alms dishes’.
Nuremberg Alms Dishes Price Guide
From looking at the recent auction prices there is enormous variation in the value of different Nuremberg dishes. Although some are four to five hundred years old, they were made in such numbers that many have survived and many in relatively good condition. Simpler designs range from £50 / $70 to £200 / $300. A dish featuring St George and the Dragon sold for £4,600 at Halls Auctioneers in 2012. A few more examples are pictured in this feature.
Nuremberg Alms Dishes Reference
Collections at V & A
Nuremberg Basin at https://www.antiquemetalware.org.uk/