Search for ...

Masterpieces from the Habsburg Cabinets of Art and Wonders

The Kunsthistorisches Museum’s Department of Sculpture and Decorative Arts houses unique holdings assembled by several members of the Habsburg family in their “Kunst- und Wunderkammern” (cabinets of art and wonders). These different collections were united in 1891 when the Imperial Museum of Fine Art (todays Kunsthistorisches Museum)was opened on Vienna’s Ringstrasse.

As the Department of Sculpture and Decorative Arts is closed at present in preparation for a new installation, this special exhibition featuring about seventy choice objects offers visitors access to a small but exquisite selection of masterpieces from this collection.

Sixteenth-century Europe saw the development of the so-called Kunst- und Wunderkammern, the predecessors of our modern museums. These complex – and generally princely – collections contained not only ingenious objects made by man, such as precious works by goldsmiths and gem cutters, sculpture in bronze, ivory and wood, scientific instruments, automatons, clocks and games, but also rare objects considered strange or unusual because of their material or appearance, the so-called “exotica, curiosa and mirabilia”, i.e. natural history marvels such as ostrich eggs, bezoars or the putative horn of a unicorn. For the collector, his Kunstkammer served as a microcosm that reflected the macrocosm of the world which was itself considered “God’s Kunstkammer”; the wealth and variety of objects amassed in a Kunstkammer turned it into a “universe on a small scale”. The assembled objects, however, reflected not only their owner’s yearning for knowledge and his curiosity but also what is perhaps the most important motivation for collecting – his love of beautiful and precious things.

Among the oldest objects on view in the exhibition is a Carolingian ivory panel depicting St. Gregory (c. 875), a masterpiece by the eponymous Master of the Viennese Panel of St. Gregory.

One of the most celebrated goldsmith works in the Collection of Sculpture and Decorative Arts is the so-called “Goblet of St. Michael” (c. 1530/40), made of partly enamelled gold encrusted with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and pearls.

Two Habsburg collectors assembled what were to become the core holdings of the collection: Archduke Ferdinand II (1529-1595), who displayed his Kunstkammer at Castel Ambras near Innsbruck, and Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612), part of whose magnificent collection was moved from Prague to Vienna and thus survived the havoc of the Thirty Years’ War. Ferdinand owned, for example, the game board decorated with his coat-of-arms that was made in Innsbruck between 1575 and 1577.

Rudolf was the patron of the famous bronze sculptor Adriaen de Vries (1545-1626). The exhibition includes both the latter’s celebrated portrait bust of Rudolf, cast in 1603, and his Christ at the Column (c. 1613/15). Another masterpiece from Rudolf’s Kunstkammer is Anton Schweinberger’s Ewer made of half a Seychelles Nut(1602).

From the collection of vessels made of semi-precious stone a covered Prasem Bowl cut by Gasparo Miseroni is on display. This particular object is listed in the 1607/11 inventory of Rudolf’s Kunstkammer in Prague and delights the eye with its perfect proportions and subtle elegance.

Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi, called Antico, executed two partly gilt bronze busts depicting Bacchus and Ariadne (1520/25), consummate masterpieces of technical brilliance, imbued with classical harmony inspired from the study of antique sculpture. They were probably commissioned for Isabella d’Este’s celebrated Kunstkammer, her so-called “Grotta”, in the Ducal Palace in Mantua and entered later via England the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm.

The most outstanding ivory sculpture included in the exhibition is a virtuoso group representing Apollo and Daphne (1680/85). Based on a model by Bernini, it is the work of the Tyrolean ivory carver, Jacob Auer.

From the collection of automatons and clocks, a figurative clock depicting Diana astride a centaur is on view. Made of partly gilt silver decorated with enamel and jewels, this work by Hans Jacob Bachmann was once in the Kunstkammer of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. The pedestal contains wheels which allow the group to move forward smoothly, while the centaur rolls his eyes and shoots his arrow and Diana as well as the dog flanking her (who also opens its mouth) move their heads.

Bezoars are found in the stomachs or intestines of some species of ruminants. Until the eighteenth century bezoars were considered a highly effective medicine for various illnesses. It was also supposed that they could neutralize poison. The bezoar shown in the exhibition features a precious contemporary setting enriched with numerous jewels, documenting thus the high regard in which it was held.

After the end of the Habsburg monarchy the collection of the Habsburg-Este branch of the Imperial family as well as the extensive collection of tapestries, which until then was used to decorate various Imperial palaces, was incorporated into the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s Department of Sculpture and Decorative Arts. The exhibition includes a tapestry that has been in the Imperial collection for a long time. Made of wool and silk as well as gold and silver threads it depicts “The Israelites Collecting Manna in the Dessert” and belongs to a Moses-Series made in Brussels, the centre of sixteenth century tapestry weaving.


12 July 2005
to 18 September 2005

to top