Cabinet of Curiosities/Chamber of Wonders

July 15, 2011

By Mary Jo Gibson

Today I am highlighting one particular item in my Cabinet of Curiosities, called a Kabinettschrank (display cabinet in German), also known as a Kunstkammers/Cabinet of Wonders.  This beautiful piece of antique artisanship was shared with me by the Getty Museum; the accompanying video opens the compartments for the closest scrutiny possible, giving a glimpse of the riches found in a nobleman’s private chamber.

Conceived to store items of artistic, natural and intellectual interest for the aristocracy and customized according to the interest of its intended, but now unknown, owner.  Created around 1630, this example from Augsburg, Germany, might be from the workshop of merchant/collector Philipp Hainhofer.  This artisan studied law at the Universities of Siena and Padua, later traveling extensively through Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, acquiring knowledge of art and several languages.

Elected to the senate of Augsburg in 1605 he was chosen as the political correspondent to the city by the King of France, the Margrave of Baden and Duke Philip II of Pomerania.  His close association with the Duke came while acting as agent in the purchasing of art and objects for a curiosity chamber.  He composed the famous Pomeranian Curiosity Cabinet, constructed in 1615 and gave it as a gift to the Duke.  Tragically, the cabinet was destroyed during a fire at the end of WWII.

Philip of Pomerania and other princes used Hainhofer for various diplomatic missions, the contacts on these journeys also served to develop his business as an art agent.  Letters in the Medici Archive from 1618 received by the cavalier Camillo di Francesco Guidi, ambassador to France, share correspondence with Hainhofer.  In 1632 he presented a cabinet to King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, now one of the best preserved of his creations, on display at the Museum Gustavianum at the University of Uppsala.  Another made for Augustus, Duke of Brunswick-Luneberg, resides in the Rijksmuseum in Amersterdam.

Kunstkammers became status symbols for the Renaissance princes, intended to reflect the prestige of both prince and principality.  Philipp Hainhofer conceived miniature editions of Curiosity Chambers, produced for the nobility and displayed in the owner’s drawing room for his enlightenment and entertainment.  The contents of the cabinet were, as a rule, taken from Hainhofer’s own collection.

This cabinet’s design reflects the perceptions of the known universe in the 1600s, giving a holistic view of the cosmos through references to history, mythology and Christian faith.  Much of the imagery as well as the types of materials and techniques used have evolved since antiquity.   Exterior double doors open to reveal an elaborate interior, featuring tiny devotional paintings on the drawers and a miniature chapel behind a smaller door at the center.

The door covering is pietra paesina, an Italian marble with evocative natural patterning, concealing a space designed to suggest a chapel.  The arched entryway inlaid with lapis lazuli, architectural details such as tiny doors add to the illusion of a room.

Agate, jasper and lapis lazuli pave the floor of the chapel; jasper imported from India, lapis lazuli came from Afghanistan.  Such gemstones were not valued for their beauty and rarity, but for their perceived supernatural properties.

Doors represented at the back of the miniature chapel may allude to the passage of the soul from death to eternity.  The veneered tortoise-shell in the central panels tinted red in reference to Christ’s blood, underscoring the belief of faith as a key to the afterlife.

Prominently displayed on the ceiling are instruments of Christ’s passion.  Framed portrait medallions hang over each door.

Symbols of death displayed with those of eternal life above, a funerary urn and oil lamp, behind a scorpion and crossed torches.  The leaves of certain trees represent resistance to death; oak is associated with strength and religious faith; holly and laurel are evergreens.

A mythical creature, the Basilisk combines the features of a rooster, snake, and a bird of prey.  Its gaze fatal, it often serves as a symbol of death, encircled by a snake eating its tail representing eternity.

An armillary sphere is an astronomical instrument with rings encircling a model of the earth.  Astronomers used it to demonstrate planetary rotations and star positions.  A wealthy, educated individual like the owner of this cabinet may have owned an armillary sphere.

“To collect”, means to gather and by extension, to organize what has been collected.  For that reason, display cabinets are considered forerunners of systems of classification, from encyclopedias to museums.  I enjoyed researching this masterpiece of antiquity.  In the coming weeks I will share information on the other compartments and the mysteries hidden therein.

Mary Jo



Filed under July

6 responses to “Cabinet of Curiosities/Chamber of Wonders

  1. Stunning piece of work! This is the type of master craftsman item that is nearly unheard of in today. Incredible find Mary Jo! Thanks to the Getty Museum for showcasing this magnificent cabinet.

  2. That is an amazing piece of art. Thanks for the all the wonderful photos. I love the Getty Museum. I had a chance to visit it a year ago, and it was amazing. I hope I can go again someday.

  3. Thank you Gene. The Getty has been extremely friendly sharing links to unique items. I only hope I can extend the same courtesy by showcasing the wonderful items there. Of course I want one of these for myself!

  4. Hi Amanda!
    Thanks for your comment. I hope to get to the Getty in the next year, quite sure it will be more than a one day visit. If I could find a source of funding for research, that would be a bonus!
    The thing that is great about this cabinet, I only showed selections from one side, and there are three more to go!
    Mary Jo

  5. That is beautiful! It’s amazing how many little drawers and such are in it!

    Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  6. Hi Crystal!
    Glad you enjoyed it. All the little drawers and compartments remind me of life, you never know what’s in there until you open them.
    Thanks for the comment.
    Mary Jo

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