Exhibitions/ Princely Splendor

Princely Splendor: The Dresden Court, 1580–1620

October 26, 2004–January 30, 2005
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

Featuring more than 250 major works of art from the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden—and especially from the Green Vault, a world-renowned treasure-chamber museum that has been preserved in its original design over the centuries—this exhibition illustrates the richness of one of the most spectacular princely collections of Europe, the Dresden Kunstkammer, around 1600. During this period of unusual economic prosperity, the Electors of Saxony amassed exotic materials and precious stones mounted with gold and silver, ivory turnings, ebony furniture, clocks and automatons, arms and armor, and sculpture, including several bronzes by Giambologna.

The exhibition is made possible by Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis and the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation.

Additional support has been provided by ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, Hamburg, Germany, and the Laurence Levine Charitable Fund.

The exhibition was organized by the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

An indemnity has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Kunstkammer was originally installed in seven rooms on the uppermost floor of the electoral palace's west wing and mentioned for the first time in 1572. Precious objects were also stored in the Geheime Verwahrung (secret storage vault). With walls nearly ten feet thick, iron gates, and barred windows, the rooms that came to comprise what was known as the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) served as a safe repository for the artistic treasures, gold, silver, and precious and semiprecious stones of the Saxon electors until the eighteenth century. The term "Green Vault" first appeared in historical records in 1586. Situated in a wing of the Dresden Palace established by Elector Augustus (r. 1553–1586), the rooms comprising the Green Vault were built directly below the royal apartments and were accessible by a secret staircase. The elector's successors, Christian I (r. 1586–1591), Christian II (r. 1591/1601–1611), and Johan Georg I (r. 1611–1656) continued to expand the collections, reflecting their individual tastes as well as a strong desire to enrich the splendor of the Dresden court. Between 1723 and 1730, Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony and king of Poland (r. 1694–1733), undertook a massive reorganization of the collections, and the Green Vault was not only enlarged but became a functional museum in the modern sense.

The vault contained the most precious objects in the encyclopedic collections, known as the Kunstkammer (art treasury) and Wunderkammer (curiosity cabinet), founded by Elector Augustus about 1560. In the late sixteenth century, a distinctive vogue for collecting swept Europe and many important collections were established at major courts. One of the most spectacular Kunstkammern was established by Emperor Rudolf II at the Hradschin Palace in Prague; other notable collections were in Vienna and Munich. These collections attempted to encompass the wonders of the natural world (naturalia) and those created by the genius, both artistic and scientific, of man (arteficialia and scientifica). The princely collectors engaged in fierce competition, trying to outdo one another in the magnificence and rarity of the objects they amassed. The treasures in the Dresden collections included hundreds of pieces of gold, silver, bronze, rock crystal, colored precious stones, ivory, mother-of-pearl, ostrich eggs, and other exotic materials, fashioned into beautiful and often whimsical objects.

During the period covered by the exhibition, the political importance of Saxony increased along with its economic development. The elector of Saxony was the chief prince in the Protestant League and the court in Dresden was an important neighbor for the extremely strong and influential court of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor in Prague. Under Elector Augustus, Saxony's wealth increased greatly through the advanced exploitation of the area's natural resources, such as semiprecious stones and silver. Improved Saxon mining techniques influenced the whole region and silver was produced in ever greater quantities. The Joachimsthal mine and mint of Bohemia, only a stone's throw away across the border of Saxony, struck coins called thaler (a derivation of Joachimsthal), from which the English word "dollar" evolved.

Among the objects on view is the Hunting and Working Desk of Elector Johan Georg I of Saxony, a traveling case of sorts, made about 1620–25 in Augsburg, a town specializing in the production of extravagant collectors' cabinets at the time. The case itself was made of ebony and silver and topped with an elaborately inlaid tabletop. It was a very rich yet practical affair, containing in its various drawers and compartments all the implements, most made of silver, that a prince would need when traveling, including tools, a scale, plates and silverware, a sieve (often used to strain cork pieces from wine), and a pharmaceutical kit with silver jars that held medicines. It was also furnished with objects required for the princely hunt with falcons, which was a privilege strictly reserved for royalty or rulers of sovereign states.

The exhibition includes a section devoted to mounted naturalia. During this period, European voyages of exploration provided increased access to exotic materials such as mother-of-pearl, shells, and corals from warm seas, as well as coconuts and ostrich eggs. Coconuts were intricately carved and mounted with elaborate gilt-silver to form extravagantly decorative items. Pieces of red coral became the antlers on the young prince Actaeon turning into a stag on a golden drinking vessel. Ostrich eggs, prized not only for their rarity, but also for their rich symbolism, were made into beautiful art objects. The exhibition includes three stunning examples of drinking vessels in the form of ostriches made by Elias Geyer in Leipzig, about 1589–95. The ostrich egg was a symbol of the Immaculate Conception and of the sol verus, the true sun, a metaphor for God. The Dresden ostriches hold horseshoes in their beaks, illustrating the belief that the giant birds were capable of digesting anything, even iron, as Pliny the Elder contended.

A section of the exhibition is devoted to turned ivories. In the Renaissance, ivory turning was an important part of the princely education, especially north of the Alps. The craft required unbounded patience—a virtue in a ruler—because ivory was not only a rare but also an extremely delicate material, and an unguarded move could result in a fracture, irretrievably ruining the entire piece. Using a turning lathe also demanded mathematical skill to translate the shape of the model into the finished ivory. The Elector Augustus was an avid ivory turner, as was his son, Christian I, and is reputed to have made at least 165 pieces, of which only one has survived. These exquisite artistic display objects often took futuristic and fantastical abstract shapes. Several ivories in the exhibition are by Georg Wecker, an ivory turner from Munich who settled in Dresden in 1578 and became Augustus's teacher, leading to an appointment as court ivory turner.

A number of extraordinary silver-gilt parade vessels, including cups and covers, as well as goblets up to thirty-one inches tall, are on view. Some of these rarely used objects were displayed on the stepped top of sideboards during elaborate dining ceremonies to impress guests. Other equally astonishing vessels that were used were camouflaged as intricate models of castles, as well as heraldic lions, elephants, and other animals. One such example is the Automaton of St. George Slaying the Dragon, a partially gilded silver "statue" of St. George astride his horse, with the dragon at its feet, mounted atop a base fitted with an automaton. The body of the horse was filled with a sizable quantity of brandy or other suitable alcohol, and then the automaton was wound up and set in motion upon a table surrounded by astonished guests. The vessel would travel on the table via hidden wheels and stop in front of a hapless guest, who would then be required to empty the elaborate flagon.

The Dresden Rüstkammer, or armory, also a part of the Dresden State Art Collections, has managed to preserve arms and armor, such as ornate parade armor made entirely of silver instead of steel, that have not survived anywhere else in the world. Often such items were melted down in times of need, but Saxony was so rich in this precious metal that many such extravagant silver pieces were saved from the smelting pot. Displayed together are a portrait of Johan Georg I and the actual armor he is portrayed wearing. A gift from his brother, Christian II, the suit of parade armor had been made in Antwerp about 1563–64 for King Eric XIV of Sweden on the occasion of his unsuccessful courtship of Elizabeth I of England. One of the rarities of the R¸stkammer collections is a complete child's suit of armor made for Johan Georg I as a boy in Augsburg before 1592. It is one of only a few such complete sets of children's arms and armor known to exist.

Under the Renaissance electors, the collections grew through acquisitions in Nuremberg and Augsburg, the works of court artists and goldsmiths, and diplomatic gifts. The advent of the Thirty Years' War interrupted the pace of collecting. Dresden remained a refuge of subtle courtly culture in the first years of the war, but a disastrous period in Central European history was to follow.