Five Natural Materials found in a Kunstkammer
MEET THE EXPERT: FIVE NATURAL MATERIALS FOUND IN A KUNSTKAMMER
A Kunstkammer was an encyclopedic collection of notable objects, including rare and precious works of art made of a wide variety of materials. Here we will explore five objects in the Wallace Collection made of materials that were often represented in the Renaissance or Baroque Kunstkammer: rock crystal, ivory, silver, amber and wax.
Christ, with a lamb on his shoulder and in his lap, is shown here as the Good Shepherd, caring for his flock. Made in Sri Lanka or Goa, the figure is a superb example of the local tradition of carving rock crystal and decorating it with gold and precious stones. This statuette might have been the one recorded in the Kunstkammer of Landgrave Karl von Hessen-Kassel (1654–1730) in Kassel, Germany. Rock crystal was rare, difficult to cut and very precious. It was admired for its translucence and purity and objects made of it had a special place in the Kunstkammer tradition.
Ivory had a long association with the Kunstkammer; it was featured as a precious natural material in its own right, but also as a material for intricate sculptures and curious turned forms made on the mechanical lathe. This sensuous relief showing a scene from the Old Testament is by the Flemish sculptor Francis van Bossuit who specialised in ivory. It was owned by a wealthy Amsterdam collector Petronella de la Court, who was Van Bossuit’s major patron. She also had a cabinet of curiosities, not in a sense of an aristocratic Kunstkammer, but a piece of furniture with many drawers full of rare objects.
Silver statuettes of ostriches were surprisingly popular in Kunstkammer collections. The bird itself was seen as a curiosity due to its large size and inability to fly. There was a myth that the ostrich could eat metal, which originated with the Roman author Pliny the Elder who stated that the bird can digest anything. This was a reason why it was often depicted holding a horseshoe in its beak. Many ostrich statuettes had bodies made from actual ostrich eggs to which silver mounts (legs, neck and tail) were attached. Those with bodies made of silver could be used as extravagant drinking vessels.
Amber, fossilized tree resin from prehistoric rainforests, was seen as a natural curiosity and was treasured for its vibrant colour. It is a versatile material and was used for all sorts of Kunstkammer objects: from vessels and panels for cabinets to chess sets. This late Medieval amber relief of the head of Christ is one of only three known representations of this kind. It is contained within an enamelled and gilded silver frame and was conceived as a liturgical object called a pax (meaning ‘peace’ in Latin). A pax is a tablet with a religious image that was kissed by the celebrating priest and by other participants at a Catholic mass.
Some of the most celebrated Kunstkammer objects were made in the sixteenth century for the Holy Roman Emperors in Vienna and Prague. Among the artists working for them was Antonio Abondio. He is mainly known as a medallist, but he also pioneered the coloured wax portrait miniature in relief. His intricate, jewel-like portraits were admired for their unprecedented realism. Wax is an organic material and has qualities that make it a perfect medium to represent human skin. Such works of art were included in a Kunstkammer because they were unusual and represented great skills.