Lot 6
  • 6

North German, probably Danzig, circa 1680

70,000 - 100,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Portable Altar
  • red and yellow amber, and ivory, within a glazed wood case, with a bone inscription plaque
  • North German, probably Danzig, circa 1680
the plaque inscribed: This crucifix belonged to Cardinal York; the last of the Royal family of Stewart. / Obit. 1807.


by family tradition Henry Benedict Stuart, Cardinal York, styled Henry IX, (Jacobite claimant to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland) (1725 - 1807);
Lady Louisa Percy (1802-1882), possibly gifted to her by her confident Lady Louisa Stuart (1757-1852);
certainly Henry George Percy, 7th Duke of Northumberland (1846–1918);
thence by descent.


Middlesex, Syon House, 1892-2013


Inventory of Syon House, 1892, p. 7 (The Gallery), 'An Amber Crucifix on stand in case (The Archives of the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle Sy.F.VII.3 a(3)


Overall the condition of the amber is very good with minor dirt and wear to the surface consistent with age. Amber is relatively fragile and so the present object is in surprisingly good condition as there are few losses or restorations. The arms and top of the crucifix may be reattached and there is a metal nut at the base of the top of the crucifix. There could potentially be further restorations. Christ's hands and the nails are lost. There is some clouding and craquelure to the amber consistent with the material. There are a few small chips. The crucifix is made in sections and so, naturally, joints are visible. There is a beautiful paper lining inside the chapel and in the baldachins and under the base. The case is very well constructed and there is general wear.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Devotional objects made from precious amber were much sought after in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Some of the earliest surviving worked ambers are rosary beads, carved in the Northern cities of Bruges and Lübeck from material imported from the Baltic, the principal source of amber in Europe (Trusted, op. cit., pp. 10-11). Long prized for its beautiful orange and yellow hues, as well as its mythical healing properties (Pliny the Elder suggested it could cure throat illnesses), amber was expensive and rare, its trade jealously guarded by the Baltic states. At a time when European elites were both devoutly religious and increasingly interested in science and the natural world, this extraordinary material was seen as wholly appropriate for the creation of personal devotional items. It is within this context that the present, beautifully carved and elegantly composed, amber portable altar should be viewed.

The combination of finely carved ivory reliefs, flame-like amber festoons flourishing from the crucifix, and finely crafted twisted solomonic columns, around a wood core, indicate that this charming object was made in Danzig (modern day Gdansk in Poland) in the second half of the 17th century. One of the most important altars of this type can be found in the collections of the Museo degli Argenti, Florence (inv. no. Bg. 1917.92.). It forms part of the Medici amber collection begun by the devoutly pious Maria Maddalena of Austria (1586-1631), wife of Grand Duke Cosimo II de' Medici (1590-1621). The Medici Altar is thought to have been made in Danzig in the mid 17th century. Whilst it stands on a much larger scale, being the ultimate exemplar of Danzig house altars, it contains many of the same elements as the present crucifix, notably the solomonic columns, the amber festoons, and the delicately carved ivory reliefs with religious scenes.

The most beautiful aspect of the Northumberland Altar is the elegant stepped base formed of a chamber surmounted by two baldachins. Within the little chamber we see a figure in profile kneeling in prayer upon a floor of polished wood and ivory. Before him and behind him are windows of translucent orange amber, which project a golden light upon the scene when illuminated from outside. A comparable room can be found in an altarpiece sold at Christie's, London, on 10 November 2005, lot 185. This altar has many of the same characteristics as the present altar and the Medici example. The Northumberland Altar, however, is distinguished by a higher level of craftsmanship and a more ambitious composition, with not one, but two baldachins surmounting the little chapel. On each level we see different ivory representations of the Passion, together with Christian symbols: Christ carrying the cross, the body of Christ, the Resurrection, and the Lamb of God. The workshipper thus embarks upon on a didactic progress, from witnessing a fellow Christian at prayer, upwards to scenes from the Passion story, culminating in the representation of Christ crucified.

In terms of date, it seems likely that the present altar was made around 1680. Compare, for example, with the Danzig altar with a representation of the Virgin, illustrated by Laue (Laue, op. cit., no. 31). This object, which is believed to have been made around 1680, has very similar baldachins formed of amber solomonic columns, and features analagous little ivory reliefs with foliate motifs. The amber orbs surmounting the base of the Northumberland Altar, together with the beautiful scrolling festoons, and the twisted columns, can also be noted in a shrine in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, thought to have been made in Danzig in the middle of the 17th century (inv. no. 270-1875).

Given the high quality of this religious object, the family tradition that it was one of the personal possessions of Cardinal York, the last Jacobite pretender to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, seems plausible. The Cardinal, who spent most of his life in Italy, was very close to the Papal authorities and would doubtless have treasured such an artefact. It is also the case, as is evident from the Medici Altar, that many amber objects travelled south to Italy; numerous examples are recorded in the inventory of the possessions belonging to Maria Maddalena, Medici Grand Duchess of Tuscany (Mosco, op. cit., pp. 97-107).

M. Trusted, Catalogue of European Ambers in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1985, pp. 10-11; M. Mosco and O. Casazza, The Museo degli Argenti. Collections and Collectors, Florence, 2004, pp. 97-107; G. Laue (ed.), Bernstein. Kostbarkeiten Europäischer Kunstkammern. Amber. Treasuries for European Kunstkammer, Munich, 2006, pp. 150-151, no. 31