by Naomi Wagner
The role of the feast in reinforcing social stratification achieves vivid expression in the opulent ornamentation and functional impracticality of this eighteenth-century spoon dish. The image on the dish appears to depict Neptune and Venus, Greco-Roman god of water and goddess of love, respectively. The nakedness of the two deities symbolizes life and fertility, while the frolicking horses in the sea below them represent the bounty of the earth. These characteristics correspond to the feast as a celebration of overabundance and wealth. But the imagery of the spoon dish also prescribes a rigid hierarchy of the natural order in which the divine human figure stands above nature (the land and sea) and animals (the horses within the sea). This symbolic and visual hierarchy of created beings justifies the hierarchy of human society, linking the spoon dish to the function of the feast as a display and perpetuation of social stratification.
The small size and mythical imagery of the spoon dish point to its use not as an everyday household serving dish but rather as an indicator of status and cultural refinement. A spoon dish, especially one as small as this, does not have the same level of practicality as other eating implements such as utensils, glasses, and dinner plates. Traces of gold gild the scalloped sides of the delicate porcelain dish, showing the greater value placed on ornamentation than on function. Importation of Chinese porcelain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became especially popular among wealthy upper-class Europeans, who considered Chinese ceramics exotic. This focus on ornamentation and wealth calls to mind the extravagant dinner party at the Vaubyessard in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which valued cultural refinement and spectacle over inclusion and celebration. The spoon dish’s distinct Chinese style, mythological subject matter, and predominantly ornamental function mark it as an object used in the highly cultured feasting of the wealthy, which maintained social hierarchy by excluding the lower classes.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Lydia Davis, Penguin Books, 2015. Print.