A Protestant tobacco box: the smell of the Reformation?

In the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, smoking was an addictive and fashionable pastime imported from the New World, as well as one fraught with moral ambiguity. This brass tobacco box dating from the late seventeenth or eighteenth century attests to the fusion of this popular cultural habit with evolving myths about the Protestant Reformation. It bears on its base and lid images of the reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, each carrying an open book. The swan above Luther alludes to the famous prophecy associated with his predecessor Jan Hus, the Bohemian heretic put to death in 1415, who is said to have predicted that though he was roasted as a goose, in a hundred years’ time a swan would sing. The verses below celebrate Luther as the light that revealed the holy Gospel to everyone. Mimicking an iconography familiar from the printed portraits that proliferated all over Europe, this domestic object demonstrates how these figures became convenient visual short-hands for the religious revolution they were credited with inaugurating. It brings together two men who were less allies than antagonists and who clashed on critical theological issues, reducing them to heroic figureheads and generic symbols. Suggestive of the role of the senses in the culture of remembering, the box raises an intriguing question: might the smell of tobacco have served to evoke the memory of the Reformation itself? AW

Tobacco Box, Dutch, late 17th or early 18th century

British Museum, London: 1889, 0702.45

Image: © Trustees of the British Museum

Further Reading

Alexandra Walsham, ‘The Smell of the Reformation’, https://rememberingthereformation.org.uk/research/smell-reformation.

Lyndal Roper, ‘Luther Relics’, in Jennifer Spinks and Dagmar Eichberger (eds), Religion, the Supernatural and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe: An Album Amicorum for Charles Zika (Leiden, 2015), pp. 330-53.

Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (Berkeley, 1988), pp. 189-220.

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