Cabinet of Curiosities

Mary Jo Gibson

June 22, 2012

Collector’s Cabinet Metropolitan Museum of Art 1570-90

Work and new responsibilities have kept me from posting my favorite internet finds, but that doesn’t mean I have stopped my endless searching.  I have plenty to choose from, and this week I share a new Cabinet with its roots in Russian art and culture.  My brother just returned from one of his yearly visits to Moscow and Saratov University, bringing with him pictures and stories of life in this widely varied land.


One of the greatest museums in the world is located in St. Petersburg, the Hermitage, state museum of Russia, with a collection that rivals the Louvre.  Consisting of six buildings, the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage and New Hermitage, this was once the home of Catherine the Great.

The Small Hermitage is what fascinated me after stumbling across a show called Museum Secrets, on Twitter of all places.  I am frustrated beyond imagining that this is not on American television considering what little is available beyond Nickelodeon.  A visit to their website and the tantalizing previews available will have you hunting YouTube for more than a snippet of what they offer.  But I digress, the private castle of Catherine the Great, 1729-96, and the giant Peacock mechanized clock are what I want to share with you.

This private pleasure palace is also referred to as the Little Hermitage and attached to the Hermitage museum.  This ‘smaller’ salon was the hideaway of the great Empress, where she held her famous dinner parties, entertaining away from the politics and gossip of the court.  In this dining room is a gift from one of her lover’s, Prince Grigory Potemkin.

Constructed by the English clockmaker James Cook, this mechanical menagerie only comes to life a few brief days a year during the Russian White Nights.   The turn of the dragonfly sitting atop a mushroom counts the seconds above the hour and minute marks.  A squirrel frozen in the moment preparing to eat a golden acorn sits among the branches of a gilded tree.  At the striking of the hour, the bells ring in the cage surrounding the mechanical owl, its head turning as if surprised to find himself caged in this magical place.  The female peacock lifts its feathered tail, unfurling intricate golden feathers, turning around to show off for the viewer as the male peacock crows a unique sound to mark the hours.  Then all is quiet in the woodland grove again.

Imagine the delight of Catherine at the presentation of the beautiful scene of nature, constructed of gilded bronze, silver and glass.  For someone who had everything, this was a gift that could not be matched.

Peter the Great and the Kunstkamera

A great collector of his day, Peter the Great, 1672-1725, was one of the first to take advantage of the Age of Exploration.  The world had opened up along overseas trade routes bringing strange and impressive relics to those with the means to afford them.  A standing order went out to merchants and his military to bring back any items of interest for his Cabinet of Curiosities.

Two Dutch collections make up the basis of Peter’s natural-scientific collections.  Albert Seba (1665-1736) concentrated on collection naturalia and artifacts of the indigenous inhabitants of Asia and America.  He supplied medicines to the Imperial Court in St. Petersburg, and offered his collection for sale in 1715.

The Tsar bought another collection in 1717, that of Frederick Ruysch.  Peter was an attendee of the anatomical lessons of this collector while living in Amsterdam in the winter of 1697-98.  These classes were given in an anatomical theater over a period of several days until the cadaver began to decompose.  You can imagine the physical oddities that transfixed the ruler who came from a country steeped in superstition; among these curiosities were a two headed sheep and a four legged rooster.  These items were eventually housed in a museum called the Kunstkamera.

A fire in 1747 destroyed a majority of the collection of Peter the Great, morbid as it sounded.  But something else rather rare is featured at the museum site, a mechanical ship.  Referred to as the Celestial Ship, this item has a vague provenance, possibly procured through European missionaries by the Russian embassy.  Watch the video clip as the clockwork of the ship comes alive with the turn of a key.  The device moves on wheels on the bottom of the hull, along with figurines of musicians and dancers.

Celestial Ship from the Kuntskamera


The Cabinet of Curiosities was undoubtedly a typical product of its time, a manifestation of the thirst of human learning.  In the essay “On Experience” by Michel de Montaigne (1533-92), reflections of an earlier time when science was shrouded in mystery and suspicion:  “For in my opinion, the most ordinary things, the most common and familiar, if we could see them in their true light, would turn out to be the grandest of all miracles of nature and the most marvelous examples, especially as regards the subject of the action of men.”

What curiosity fascinates you?  Is there a museum with a relic that you return to time and again for contemplation and inspiration?  Share your insights in the comments below.  I leave you with a slide show from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Heilbrunn Timeline, and some of their unique pieces from various Cabinets of Curiosity.

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Until next time,


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One response to “Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. Pingback: Morbid Curiosity at the Chicago Cultural Center | This write life

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