Cabinetry by the workshop of Melchior Baumgartner German
Silversmith Jeremias Sibenbürger
Silver plaques possibly by a member of the Lencker family

Not on view

During the sixteenth century, collecting rare, beautiful, and valuable objects became a fashionable pursuit among the princes and wealthiest citizens of the Holy Roman Empire. Many of their palaces contained a room called a Kunstkammer or a Kunst- und Wunderkammer (chamber for artworks and curiosities). Here the treasures were displayed, frequently in a sequence of interconnected spaces dedicated to various fields of collecting.[1] The three principal categories were naturalia (products of nature), artificialia or artefacta (products of the human hand), and scientifica (scientific instruments, such as astrolabes and clocks).[2] The intention was to suggest the wealth and learning of the collector and to impress foreign guests.

Some collectors of small objects commissioned elaborate cabinets decorated with semiprecious stones or exotic woods, such as ebony (see 1975.367), or other sumptuous material. These pieces were furnished with many drawers and secret compartments, which offered diverse storage opportunities. Some were designed to stand against a wall in the company of other display cases. Others stood independently, like the Metropolitan's example, which is finished on all sides; this type of cabinet could be said to represent in miniature format an entire Kunstkammer, which was itself a metaphor for the known world in all its diversity.

The Museum's cabinet is completely encased in ivory and has only a few gilded yellow-metal mounts that are essential for its use, such as the auricular-style handle on each side and the key plates. The many wooden moldings—on the attic story and the base, as well as around the vertical panels on the facade—are decorated with a ripple pattern and gilded. During the day these would reflect the incoming sunlight, but at night the myriad silver notches would catch and intensify every flickering ray of the candles, giving a satin-like sheen to the smooth ivory panels. This river of silver ripples must always have drawn viewers, like bedazzled moths, to a closer inspection of the piece.

Exotic ivory, purchased by the ounce like silver or gold, was prized for its creamy white, fine-grained surface, which was frequently compared to a woman's skin and for that reason, perhaps, often used for implements and requisites of the toilette. Since the Middle Ages such items were stored in ivory-decorated boxes, some of the finest examples of which were made at the Embriachi workshop in Venice.[3]

The decoration engraved on the ivory veneer—large figures representing Wisdom (left side), Strength and Tolerance (front), and Knowledge (right side)[4] and a wealth of abstract and naturalistic ornaments—were probably applied in the second quarter of the nineteenth century in England. That the original intention had been to make a strong contrast between a grand but plain exterior and a dazzling display concealed behind the cabinet's doors was not taken into consideration. The style of the engravings, especially the rocaille-like formations in the corners of the doors and the clumsily stylized Tudor rose on the top, is typical of the nineteenth-century taste for reviving earlier stylistic forms and combining them haphazardly.

The front opens to reveal a pyrotechnical sparkle of silver and partly gilded applications. There are three figural silver plaques, three richly carved architectural structures, and many drawer fronts, each decorated with ornamental pressed silver foil. The central plaque, framed within a columned aedicula, conceals a door to a compartment that is veneered on all sides with ebony, ivory, and other exotic woods in a four-pointed-star pattern. The back wall can be removed to access ten drawers of different sizes. A toilette mirror is contained in the drawer below. In the large base drawer of the cabinet there is a tablet inlaid with ivory and exotic woods. This could be used for writing or gaming. An inkwell, a sander, and gaming pieces could be stored here in drawers with a sliding top. The tablet could also serve as a tray to display precious objects ordinarily hidden away in the drawers. The attic story is fronted by doors concealing a nest of drawers, and there are drawers in the sides of the top as well.

Such cabinets were a specialty of the cabinetmakers and the goldsmiths of the free imperial city of Augsburg. These master craftsmen worked in collaboration under the supervision of a coordinating merchant or middleman-a professional much like the eighteenth-century Parisian marchands-merciers. The most prolific of these personages was the Augsburg art dealer and court correspondent Philipp Hainhofer (1578–1647),[5] who is famous for three large and ingeniously conceived cabinets made to his specifications in the first third of the seventeenth century by Ulrich Baumgartner (ca. 1580–1652).[6] The Museum's cabinet is a relatively late example, produced in the unstable period after the end of the Thirty Years' War, when Augsburg gradually replaced Nuremberg as the center of goldsmithing in Central Europe.[7]

The three large figural plaques inside the cabinet are more skillfully worked than the other silver applications, which are attributed to the Augsburg silversmith Jeremias Sibenbürger, whose stamp is on the left column of the aedicula.[8] The plaque framed by the tabernacle shows Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. On the left door is a plaque with the figure of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. Her cutoff sickle suggests that all three plaques were trimmed before they were put in place. The figure on the right door is Venus, goddess of love. The Mannerist style of the plaques indicates they were made no later than 1610–25. They are a tour de force of the goldsmiths' art, displaying a wide range of relief techniques. Particularly accomplished are the fine diamond stippling in the background and the fluid repoussé work. They are undoubtedly the work of a great master, such as one of the members of the Lencker family.[9]

The theme of the plaques was in particular favor at the court of Emperor Rudolph II (r. 1576–1612),[10] whose Kunstkammer in the imperial residence at Prague, incidentally, was perhaps the most encyclopedic of all. It illustrates a line from The Eunuch, written in 161 B.C. by the Roman dramatist Terence, "Sine Cerere et Libero friget Venus" (without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus would freeze), meaning that without food and wine, love grows cold.[11] Since the figure of Bacchus is in the center and framed by an aedicula with full columns, the implication is that wine trumps both food and love in the equation; however, Bacchus was also god of erotic ecstasy, as the seed pattern on the columns suggests. The intended meaning here may instead be the one expressed in a verse in the Parvus Mundus, an emblem book by Laurentius Haechtanus, published in 1579 in Antwerp: "Where sobriety reigns, there is fleshy lust, cold as ice; but be plentiful with an abundance of grain, wine, and beer, and voluptuousness will prevail."[12] The sensuously textured ivory and the iconography of the silver plaques indicate that this cabinet was a sophisticated wedding gift furnished with valuables that included toiletry accessories to remind its future owner to take care of her beauty and remember her conjugal obligation to love her husband and appreciate his attentions.[13]

Several similar ivory cabinets from Augsburg are known. Melchior Baumgartner, the son of Ulrich, maker of the three splendid Hainhofer cabinets, crafted two for the Munich court, which are today at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. One, decorated with lapis lazuli, gilded silver, and enamel, cost the enormous sum of 3,150 guilders in 1655.[14] The cabinetry and veneering of these two princely commissions are of even higher quality than that of the present piece, but the Augsburg workshops functioned independent of the courts and were obliged to make products at different price levels. A cabinet with similar silver columns was on the art market in the 1970s,[15] and another with related interior marquetry but incorporating Florentine pietre dure panels (see 1988.19) was acquired some years ago by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.[16] A much simpler cabinet with ivory veneer is in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan,[17] and a cabinet of smaller size, possibly used as a jewelry cabinet, is in the Lemmers-Danforth Sammlung, Wetzlar.[18]

[Wolfram Koeppe 2006]

[1] Wolfram Koeppe, "Collecting for the Kunstkammer," Timeline of Art History (online at

[2] Wolfram Koeppe. "Exotica and the Kunstkammer: 'Snake Stones, Iridescent Sea Snails, and Eggs of the Giant Iron-Devouring Bird.'" In Dirk Syndram and Antje Scherner, eds. Princely Splendor: The Dresden Court, 1580–1620. Exh. cat., Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Fondazione Memmo, Palazzo Ruspoli, Rome. Milan, Dresden, New York, 2004, pp. 80-81.

[3] Erich Herzog and Anton Ress. "Elfenbein, Elfenbeinplastik." In Reallexikon zur deutschen Kunstgeschichte, vol. 4, cols. 1307–62. Stuttgart, 1958, col. 1337; Elisabeth Scheicher. "Zur Ikonologie von Naturalien im Zusammenhang der enzyklopädischen Kunstkammer." Anzeiger des Germanischen Nationalmuseums, 1995, pp. 115–25.

[4] Note by Clare Vincent in the archives of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, Metropolitan Museum, after Norma Cecchini. Dizionario sinottico di iconologia. Scienze storico-ausiliarie I. Bologna, 1976.

[5] Ronald Gobiet. Der Briefwechsel zwischen Philipp Hainhofer und Herzog August d.J. von Braunschweig-Lüneburg. Forschungshefte (Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich) 8. Munich, 1984.

[6] Heinrich Kreisel. Die Kunst der deutschen Möbels: Möbel und Vertäfelungen des deutschen Sprachraums von den Anfängen bis zum Jugendstil. Vol. I, Von den Anfängen bis zum Hochbarock. Munich, 1968, figs. 382, 383; and Dieter Alfter. Die Geschichte des Augsburger Kabinettschranks. Schwäbische Geschichtsquellen und Forschungen 15. Augsburg, 1986, nos. 26-38.

[7] The Augsburg town mark on the Museum's cabinet is only partly legible; most likely it is the one for the years 1655–60 (see Helmut Seling. Die Kunst der Augsburger Goldschmiede, 1529–1868: Meister, Marken, Werke. 3 vols. Munich, 1980, no. 90), although it could also be the one for 1626–29 (see Seling, op. cit., vol. 3, suppl., no. 43). A date in the late 1650s is also attractive on stylistic grounds, because in the form of its column capitals and other ornamental details the Museum's cabinet seems to be related to two cabinets at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, by Melchior Baumgartner (see below at n. 14).

[8] Helmut Seling. Die Kunst der Augsburger Goldschmiede, 1529–1868: Meister, Marken, Werke. 3 vols. Munich, 1980, no. 1263.

[9] On the Lenckers, see Monika Bachtler. "Die Nürenberger Goldschiedefamilie Lencker." Anzeiger des Germanischen Nationalmuseums, 1978, pp. 71–122. For similar reliefs by Christoph Jamnitzer, see Renate Eikelmann, ed. Der Mohrenkopfpokal von Christoph Jamnitzer. Exh. cat., Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. Munich, 2002.

[10] On the theme of Ceres, Bacchus, and Venus in the work of Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617), Bartholomäus Spranger (1546–1611), and the Prague school, see Lawrence W. Nichols. "The 'Pen Works' of Hendrick Goltzius." Exh. cat., published in Bulletin (Philadelphia Museum of Art) 88 (Winter 1992), p. 4; and Huigen Leeflang et al. Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617): Drawings, Prints and Paintings. Exh. cat., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Toldeo Museum of Art. Zwolle, 2003, pp. 275-76, no. 99 (entry by Lawrence W. Nichols).

[11] The Eunuch, bk. 4, l. 732.

[12] Konrad Renger. "Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus." Gentse bijdragen tot de kunstgeschiedenis 24 (1976-78), p. 194. The triad of gods illustrating Terence's maxim is rarely depicted in the decorative arts, and it appears only on objects of the highest quality. The best-known adaptations are seen on a gold beaker of about 1600 by Paulus van Vianen (1558–1613) in a private collection and a silver tankard by the famous Hamburg goldsmith Jürgen Richels (1641–1710) of about 1680 in the Lemmers-Danforth Collection, Wetzlar; Wolfram Koeppe, Die Lemmers-Danforth-Sammlung Wetzlar: Europäische Wohnkultur aus Reniassance und Barock. Heidelberg, 1992, pp. 471-73, no. GO15, color ill. p. 446. The theme also appears on an ornamental Flemish or Dutch vase at the Metropolitan Museum (acc. no. 2000.492; see "Recent Acquisitions: A Selection, 2000–2001." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 59, no. 2 (Fall 2001), p. 32 [entry by Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide]) which was most likely created to decorate a temporary wooden facade set up in front of a grand town house on the occasion of a wedding or the visit of a dignitary, in the tradition of the triumphal arch; see Reinier Baarsen et al. Rococo in Nederland. Exh. cat., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Waanders and Amsterdam, 2001, p. 97, no. 27 (entry by Reinier Baarsen). The iconography of this piece was identified by the present author.

[13] Dieter Alfter. Die Geschichte des Augsburger Kabinettschranks. Schwäbische Geschichtsquellen und Forschungen 15. Augsburg, 1986 does not mention the Museum's cabinet. It has been published in Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide. "The Marquand Mansion." Metropolitan Museum Journal 29 (1994), p. 166, fig. 26; and Reinier Baarsen. "Een Augsburgs pronkkabinet." Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 48 (Summer 2000), fig. 16. The latter offers a lengthy discussion of the cabinet but does not identify the iconography.

[14] Georg Himmelheber. "Ulrich and Melchior Baumgartner." Pantheon 28 (April–June 1975), pp. 113–20; Dieter Alfter. Die Geschichte des Augsburger Kabinettschranks. Schwäbische Geschichtsquellen und Forschungen 15. Augsburg, 1986, nos. 26-38; and Reinhold Baumstark and Helmut Seling, eds. Silber und Gold: Augsburger Goldschmiedekunst für die Höfe Europas. 2 vols. Exh. cat., Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. Munich, 1994, vol. 2, pp. 272-79, no. 64 (entry by Lorenz Seelig).

[15] Apollo 93 (February 1971), p. 55.

[16] Reinier Baarsen. "Een Augsburgs pronkkabinet." Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 48 (Summer 2000), figs. 6, 7; and Reinier Baarsen, Seventeenth-Century Cabinets. Rijksmuseum Dossiers. Zwolle and Amsterdam, 2000, pp. 16-21.

[17] Maria Teresa Balboni Brizza, ed. Stipi e cassoni. Le guide del museo. Museo Poldi-Pezzoli, Milan. Turin, 1995, p. 60, no. 10. The intarsia panels are a later addition, possibly replacing panels of silver or semiprecious stones.

[18] Wolfram Koeppe, Die Lemmers-Danforth-Sammlung Wetzlar: Europäische Wohnkultur aus Reniassance und Barock. Heidelberg, 1992, pp. 238-40, no. M141, color ill. p. 256.

Cabinet, Cabinetry by the workshop of Melchior Baumgartner (German) (1621–1686), Oak, pine, walnut, cedar, ebony, and rosewood; ivory veneer and silver veneer; silver; silver-gilt moldings; gilded yellow-metal mounts; the drawers lined with aquamarine-colored silk, German, Augsburg

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