A solid example of this cow currency at work is with two gilded silver drinking vessels called “tankards,” both of which were made around 1585. The low-end example was worth five cows, and was fashioned solely from the gilded silver, which was easily accessible due to the abundance of mines in Augsburg, Germany, where it was crafted.
Its high-end counterpart, made in Bohemia for Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, is larger and emblazoned with ornamentation. Carrying a cow price of 158, it’s one of the most expensive items in the show, mostly due to its rock crystal embellishments. Then a rare mineral worth its weight in gold, the luminous rock crystal—better known today as quartz—is also the primary material of the show’s top-valued work, a German bird-shaped vessel priced at 275 cows.
Meanwhile, the 16th-century cost of the tapestry Cleland and I first stood before, Saint Veronica, was equivalent to 52 cows. While significantly lower in cow value than the rock crystal items, “that was almost nine years’ pay for a laborer,” she emphasizes. This cost reflects the tapestry’s exceptional quality: Many of its tightly woven threads—which combine to form a life-size portrait of the saint—are individually wrapped in silver.
Nearby, the oil-on-panel work The Rest on the Flight into Egypt
is a quintessential
painting. It was likely rendered by two artists from the Netherlands around 1540, placing it in the same time, place, and religious context as the neighboring tapestry. With its soft brushwork, deep colors, and highly detailed background, one could assume that this painting was worth just as much as the Saint Veronica
tapestry, if not more.
On the contrary, this painting would have been worth a fraction of the tapestry, at five cows. Roughly equal to five months’ work for your ordinary craftsman in Antwerp, this was still a significant sum for 16th-century workers, even though the object’s label states that it was probably intended for a quick sale in a Flemish market. “We want to be very careful not to denigrate painting; of course, it’s still very important,” Cleland clarifies. “But in the 16th century, this would have been one of the cheapest objects in the room.”