THE PROPERTY OF A EUROPEAN NOBLEMAN
The warm honeyed tones and translucence of amber lend themselves to the carving of luxurious objects. Since Paleolithic times amber was traded as a precious material and its association with healing in ancient times and holiness in Medieval times, when it was used to make rosaries, added mystery and sacred value.
This casket is made of Baltic amber which originated 40 million years ago when the Baltic sea was forested land; the amber is fossilised resin from the trees. Amber was either dredged from the sea in nets or collected from the beaches when it was washed up, particularly after heavy storms. Each piece found was rarely over two inches long and all the pieces for an object such as the present casket would have been collected over a period of years.
The two major centres of amber work were Königsberg (modern-day Kaliningrad), the capital of Prussia and Danzig (Gdansk) in Poland. In Königsberg the Prussian rulers – the Knights of the Teutonic Order - had a monopoly over amber and called it ‘Prussian silver’ because of the wealth it brought to the region. When the Grand Master of the Order converted to Lutheranism in 1525 the amber workers, whose guilds had been known as Paternoster-macher, turned their hands to the production of secular, luxurious objects of which the present casket is exemplary with its images of goddesses, seasons and senses. The baroque period was the halcyon era of amber carving. A new guild of Königsberg amber workers was set up in 1641 by a group of masters, one of whom was Georg Schreiber.
Schreiber began working in amber around 1590; his first signed and dated work appears in 1614 in a career which probably continued until 1650. According to Laue there are seven signed works produced between 1614 and 1643, the majority of his works would have been unsigned.
The present casket shows the two techniques typical of Schreibers work: the careful construction of wafer-thin reliefs made to slot into one another secured by silver pins, and the figurative intarsiae. The present casket can be closely compared to another with ball feet in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, illustrated in Bernstein für Thron und Altar (no. 27) and dating to 1630. The grotesque faces in the front corners of the pediment above the lid are very similar to those on the Kunsthistorisches casket. The central reliefs of birds to either side of the present casket are echoed in the bird motifs to either side of the lid lock of no.27. The bird perching on fruit motif also appears in another, earlier, casket by Schreiber in a Private Collection also illustrated in Bernstein (no. 26). The motif appears to either side of the central front drawer. Moreover, a detail from that casket appears in almost exact replication on the present casket. The central fruit from a detail on the front of no. 26, with stylised over-hanging foliage, appears again in the central relief on the left-hand side of the present casket. The delicate oval intarsiae backed with foil and covered in transparent amber on the lowest tier can be compared with those on the interior of a games board by Screiber signed and dated to 1616 (illustrated by Laue fig. 4).
Amber goods, prized for their skilled workmanship as well as the intrinsic value of the material were favoured as diplomatic gifts. Several by Schreiber are documented, and Laue notes two which were sent to the Kings of Poland and Denmark from the King of Prussia and the Holy Roman Emperor. An anonymous lidded amber goblet in a Private collection was, by tradition, given by Ferdinand III to Fabio Chigi, later Pope Alexander VII (Bernstein für Thron und Altar no. 28). The lid is surmounted by an ivory double headed eagle, emblem of the Holy Roman Empire. The double-headed eagle also appears on the back of the present casket, raising the possibility that it was a diplomatic gift, given by either Ferdinand II (r. 1620-1637) or Ferdinand III (r. 1637-1657).
Rohde, 205-224; Bernstein für Thron und Altar, pp. 54-59, nos. 26, 27 & 28; Trusted, pp. 59-68; Georg Laue, pp. 23-27
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