Cabinet of Curiosities


Cabinet of Curiosities


Mary Jo Gibson

A memorable Museum Experience engages the visitor on levels expected and unexpected. Participation with new technologies opens deeper communication and understanding of the exhibit, inspiring intuitive learning; museums have this ability in spades.  Making the old new again with hands on exploration moves an exhibit to a level of relevance not considered in the previous scope of art, deepening the connection to the viewer; bringing all the senses into the Museum Experience.

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Augsburg Cabinet, Chicago Art Institute

Viewing the Chicago Art Institute’s Augsburg Cabinet is stunning, however, not complete, as the hidden treasures within lie beyond the opulent doors.  Technology has produced a stunning video that shows the inner workings of the cabinet, the separate compartments, and the art that adorn the deeper recesses.

Authors Own Interactive

Cabinets made in the southern German town of Augsburg during the 16th and 17th century are famous for their showy decorations, typically executed in ebony veneer and ivory inlay, as with this excellent specimen on display in Gallery 234.  The craftsmanship of this decoration is matched by the inventiveness of the cabinets’ interior structure, part display case, part tool chest and part safe-deposit box.  These were usually commissioned by one craftsman who subcontracted the various specialized components and then sold the completed object from his shop.  Cooperation between silversmiths, cabinet makers and goldsmiths, a constant aspect of Augsburg craftsmanship, facilitated the production of elaborately mounted mirrors, clocks, traveling services and these specialized cabinets.  Produced in small series, the cabinets usually have only minor variations in decoration, they are calculated to appeal, in iconography, ornateness and expense to a limited circle of the court and the upper bourgeoisie.

Augsburg Cabinet, Chicago Art Institute

Augsburg Cabinet, Chicago Art Institute


Charity is represented atop the cabinet as a mature woman with small children.  She represents the Greek principle of unselfish love.  Three children accompany the figure of Charity, one as a baby in her arms (sadly missing his head due to damage over time), and the others two entwined about her legs, clutching her hands.

Authors Own

Charity, Augsburg Cabinet


The Arabesque Ornamental forms that cover the outside of the cabinet contrast sharply with the black sheen of its ebony veneer.  These sinuous forms were characteristic across the decorative arts during this period.  The motif was heavily influenced by contemporary engravings of Islamic and Moorish patterns.

Authors Own Detail

Duchamp’s Fountain

I had the pleasure of listening to the BBC podcast of Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal, and must say I was quite taken by the subversive nature of this artist.  I would like to thank Ben Street for sharing this podcast on Facebook.

Duchamps Valise

I looked into some more of Mr. Duchamp’s art, and found that he was a close friend of Peggy Guggenheim, who lived in Venice.  Several of his Box in a Valise (Boite en-valise) are famous 3-d efforts in the shape of a small suitcase or valise, each remarkable on their own. These small cases contain miniature replicas and color reproductions of works by the artist. He gifted one to his patron Guggenheim, which included a small version of the celebrated fountain, perhaps a sample version of the original.   The exhibited urinal has never been found since it was first viewed by the  Society of Independent Artists committee in 1917, subsequently rejected, photographed professionally by Alfred Stieglitz, never to be seen again.

Duchamps Fountain

While ‘modern’ art and the various movements have never been my cup of tea, this story and its destabilizing undertones gives me pause to re-evaluate my personal thoughts on these creations, and the artists.


Francis Willughby, Unsung Natural History Connoisseur, and Batman, The Dark Knight Rises


Sir Issac Newton’s Principia (Philosophaie Naturalis Principia Matrhematica) famously was to be the first book published by the Royal Society, however this was circumvented by another publication, A History of Fishes, by Francis Willughby and John Ray.  Samuel Pepys was president of the society at the time and is named on the title pages of both books.  While Newton is a name that has survived the centuries with his apple and gravity conclusions, Willughby and Ray have fallen aside through the annals of time.

frontspiece willughby and ray

Willughby was once Ray’s student and the two travelled together, studying, collecting birds and fish.  After the untimely death of Willughby, Ray oversaw the culmination of their notes and drawings into three books. These studies are considered the beginning of scientific ornithology taxonomy in Europe, dismissing the older inaccuracies of Aristotle.  Their collection of birds and fish is stored at Willughby’s family home, Wollaton Hall now the Nottingham Natural History Museum.  Wollaton Hall, incidentally, stars as Wayne Manor in the Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises.  Trumped by Willughby, again I believe, Sir Newton.

Batmans House

Batman on the stairs

Thank you for joining me for this edition of Cabinet of Curiosities. Albrecht Durer will be following soon!



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There Be Dragons in Gallery 203

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Saint George Killing the Dragon, Bernat Martorell, 1434

Saint George Killing the Dragon, Bernat Martorell, 1434

Directly off one of the main thoroughfares at the Art Institute of Chicago, Gallery 203, is the epic painting of Saint George Killing the Dragon (1434-35), by Bernat Martorell, 1400-1452.  The size of the painting equates to the amount of influence this story carries in many cultures; the popular myth of Saint George, the idealization of the knight who kills the dragon and saves the maiden;  a well-known saint in medieval Europe, where the knightly code of conduct emphasized heroism and courtly manners towards women.   He became the patron saint of Catalonia, Portugal, Russia and England.  April 23rd is still celebrated regionally as Saint George’s Day in some areas of Europe.

Martorell’s painting was the central panel of an altarpiece executed for a chapel dedicated to Saint George, patron Saint of Catalonia, located in northeastern Spain.  The image is filled with symbolism and detail bringing the story to life.  Bones litter the foreground, lizards crawl around the crevice where the dragon lives, and crowds line the castle’s battlements in the background.  The painting shows St. George at the climax of his most famous adventure, dressed in armor, mounted on a white horse, while the princess, dressed in a pink gown and fur trimmed cloak, stands witness to his defense.

And the crowd roared

The Princess is Saved

Dragon DetailSaint George in the Moment

The son of a butcher and a native of Sant Celoni, a small town in Catalonia, Martorell is one of the most significant artists of his generation.  In addition to paintings, his workshop produced manuscript illuminations, stained glass windows, flags, and coats of arms.  Certain features of Saint George Killing the Dragon, such as the style of architecture in the fortress, the enclosed gardens, the fruits and cypress trees, suggest a Catalan locale, even though the story was said to take place in the Middle East.

The painting itself is part of a retable, the side panels reside at the Louvre in Paris.  These additional parts complete the episode depicting the saint’s martyrdom, however they remain relatively unknown in the cultural domain.  The scenes consist of the Judgement, the Flagellation, Saint George dragged through the city, and the Beheading.

Saint George Retable Louvre

Saint George Retable, Louvre

The geographical scattering of the pieces of the retable led to different studies, nonetheless, the mystery of the painter was only recently solved with documented evidence to support the provenance.  The enigma was conclusively pinpointed during the Spanish Civil War, when the contract for the retable of Saint Pedre de Pubol, a work by Bernat Martorell, was found in the archives.  This work closely resembles the style of the Chicago Saint George.

Commissioned for the chapel of Saint George, Palau de la Generalitat, Barcelona, Saint George Killing the Dragon was placed on loan at the Art Institute in 1921, and given to the museum in 1933.

Enjoy a the viewing of this masterpiece at TripAdvisor’s Best Museum in the World, and to the left of this painting is a small room with medieval reliquaries; the tooth of Saint John, a carved ivory portable altar, and pieces from the Treasure of Gelph.  The Chicago Art Institute is an ever changing museum where each visit offers new and unique art for the viewer.

Looking forward to sharing my next post on the Augsberg Cabinet with a fantastic video, then Albrecht Durer!



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