A 17th Century Birthing Plate

Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0
Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0 / Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Before Kanye West gifted Kim Kardashian a “push present,” in their case an extravagant diamond choker, wealthy Renaissance wives were often given birthing trays after a successful delivery. The birthing tray, often completed in the studio of a master painter, might seem humble compared to Kardashian’s choker, but by the standards of 15th century Italians, they were luxurious objects celebrating a noble woman’s most important job: the continuity of the family line.

The custom of giving a new mother a birthing tray began in the early Renaissance and is particularly associated with Florence. A desco da parto, as they were known, was meant as a reward for the birth of a child—preferably a son—and to smooth the often-difficult postpartum recovery of a new mother. Birth was dangerous in the era, and birthing trays, as well as other objects such as elaborately decorated plates and broth bowls, were presents meant to celebrate a woman’s safe journey through the many risks of pregnancy and delivery.

The birthing tray was an object that was both ceremonial and practical. In his 1435–44 book On the Family, the Italian humanist and writer Leon Battista Alberti recommended that following a birth, a woman “should not go out in the cold and wind until all her limbs have fully regained their strength.” In effect, Alberti was recommending a lying-in period, a time to recover and regain strength often weakened by birth. During that period, wealthy women would have been fed sweetmeats and fruits on the tray. 

Birthing trays began as painted wooden trays, often framed in gilt, and generally featuring scenes from antiquity or the Bible. Important families often included their coat of arms, indicating the importance of lineage and regeneration. There is evidence that wealthy families valued the objects beyond their initial use; birth trays were often hung on bedroom walls after a woman finished her recuperation. An elegant birth tray celebrating the arrival of Lorenzo de Medici (1449–1492), the future de facto ruler of Florence and patron to Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Leonardo, was later displayed in Lorenzo’s private chambers in his Florentine palace. The Medici tray, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was painted by the younger brother of Masaccio, a deeply influential early 15th century Florentine painter.

The wooden tray, however, quickly fell out of fashion as the ceramics industry, particularly maiolica and earthenware, became more popular in the 16th century. With expansion of the industry, birth trays morphed into bowls and parturition sets, multiple pieces of plateware that could be stacked together and more easily carried. 

This example, held by the Science Museum in London, is typical of the earthenware sets produced after the rise of ceramics. The plate dates between 1601 and 1800, sometime between the rise of earthenware and the end of the fashionable gifting of birth trays. The glazed earthenware plate featured a pastoral scene of a young mother breastfeeding her infant while an older child to her right plays with a jug. On her left is a classically inspired fountain spouting water, perhaps a clunky metaphor for the maternal nurturing depicted on the plate.

Surrounding the main image is a decorative frame of putti and flowers, both objects that evoke romantic love and fertility. The frame iconography is repeated in the other plate, which forms the set, but the primary image features a scene from antiquity depicting two women in classical garb (perhaps the Roman goddess Flora, who is associated with fertility and always depicted with flowers). 

It’s unclear why birth plates like this one fell out of fashion, but certainly the modern “push present,” that act of presenting a woman with a postpartum gift as a sign of appreciation and reward, has roots in the elaborate birth trays of the Renaissance.