A courtly 17th-century amber and ivory casket

Editorial Staff Art

Because the Detroit Institute of Arts had no works sculpted in amber, I have as the curator been keen to acquire a significant object in this precious material once called “the gold of the Baltic.” Long regarded as having mythical origins and medicinal and magical powers, northern European amber is ancient fossilized resin that was primarily found floating on the Baltic Sea; in the seventeenth century rulers there demanded that their subjects give them all the amber they found—under penalty of imprisonment or death. In the royal workshops the amber was transformed into such costly objects as the magnificent casket (Kasten) with ivory reliefs illustrated here.  

Attributed to Gottfried Wolffram, the gifted master carver who began work on the famous Amber Room for the Prussian king Frederick I in 1701, the casket was discovered by Georg Laue, a Munich dealer and specialist in amber and ivory, in an old aristocratic collection in Germany. In March he offered it at TEFAF in Maastricht, where it was greatly admired by the Detroit Institute’s director and members of our board and patrons, whom I was leading on a biannual tour of great collections in Europe. Happily, their enthusiasm has brought this casket worthy of a Kunstkammer to the museum.

The attribution to Wolffram, a master carver of both ivory and amber, is based on similarities between the casket and works by or attributed to him in the Kunstkammer collection of Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen and elsewhere—including the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vaults) in Dresden, the Kunstgewerbemuseum and Bode-Museum in Berlin, the Herzog Anton-Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, the Staatliches Museum in Schwerin, the Schlossmuseum in Gotha, and the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Moreover, documents in the royal archives in Copenhagen published by Jørgen Hein and others indicate that Christian V of Denmark and Norway and his successor Frederick IV both bought related ivory and amber pieces directly from the artist between 1690 and 1714.

Many of Wolffram’s art works are made entirely of intricately carved ivory. The Detroit casket is particularly important as one of the few objects in which he used ivory and amber together. The only other known examples are four small round containers in the Grünes Gewölbe, which Wolffram carved of ivory but which have lids that are decorated with amber segments and rosettes very similar to those on the top of the casket. It was once thought that the amber carver Wilhelm Krüger (1680-1756) added the amber decoration to the Dresden works in the early eighteenth century. But it is now accepted that as a master carver, Wolffram executed both the ivory and amber portions himself.

On much of his work, as here, Wolffram’s ivory reliefs depict the Roman Campagna with a particular emphasis on perspective and elaborate landscape details. As a source of inspiration for these idealized landscapes he of­ten used engravings by Gabriel Perelle (1603-1677) and his son Adam Perelle (1638-1695), who specialized in views of the Roman landscape from the middle of the seventeenth century. The im­pres­sive ivory relief adorning the lid of the casket, one of five on the piece, is derived from an engraving by the Perelles showing trav­elers in a forest, a copy of which is in the Kupferstich-Kabinett in Dres­den.

Although it is not clear where Wolffram was born and trained, archival sources indicate that it may have been in Denmark. He began working at the Danish court in 1683, and in 1691 was named ivory turner to Christian V. Like several other artists working at the court in Copenhagen, however, he was discharged after the king’s death in 1699. Wolffram later traveled to Berlin, where he worked for Frederick I as the principal carver of the Amber Room. (In 1716 Frederick’s son, Frederick William I, gave the Amber Room to Peter the Great of Russia; it was later installed at Catherine’s Palace in Tsarskoye Selo outside of Saint Petersburg, where, after having been stolen during World War II, it was re-created in 2003.) Wolffram quarreled over his high salary demands with Eosander von Göthe, the master builder of Charlottenburg Palace and court architect in Berlin, and returned to Copenhagen in 1707, where he remained until his death in 1716.

In its shape and in the com­bination of ivory and amber the casket is related to works produced in Gdansk (Danzig), Poland, to­ward the end of the seventeenth cen­­­tury, a period when that city was famous for carvers who worked in both precious materials. Wolf­fram frequently traveled to Gdansk during his years in Copenhagen, and he may well have received some artistic training there. In many aspects the casket recalls the important amber example attributed to Michel Redlin (active in Gdansk in the  1680s) now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; in addition to the basic shape and decorative scheme combining variously colored ambers, both have similar fire-gilt brass hinges that are engraved with decorative floral motifs. On the interior, the gilt-brass lock plate on the Detroit casket is engraved with a charming cherub’s face (see p. 30).

Composed of many large sun­­set-colored amber plaques and oval and angular cabochons that are en­­graved and foil-backed, the casket has a wooden core, carefully conceived to assure the translucence of the amber. Inside it is clad with sumptuous old red velvet, leaving the plaques with angular cabochons uncovered, so that golden light is transmitted through them when the lid is opened.

This exquisite casket stands out as a particularly elaborate work of courtly art from the end of the sev­enteenth century: the engraved and translucent amber cabochons, the precisely carved landscape scenes in ivory, and the open-worked en­­­­­­­graved hinges all declare it a mas­­terpiece. Its appeal is further enhanced by archival documents that reveal that Christian V paid Wolffram the con­siderable sum of eighty rigsdaler for an amber casket with ivory inlays as a gift for his consort, Charlotte Amalie of Hesse-Kassel, in 1690. While it is not known that the casket discussed here is the one Christian V gave to his wife, it is certainly noteworthy that such a casket executed by the same artist was considered worthy of a queen.

Bibliographical references:
U. Arnhold, “Elfenbeinarbeiten von Wilhelm Krüger,” Jahrbuch der Staatlichen Kunstsammlun­gen Dresden 8 (1970/1971), pp. 191-207.
Feline Arndt et al., Bernstein: Kostbarkeiten europäischer Kunstkammern/Amber: Treasuries for European Kunstkammers, ed. Georg Laue and trans. Joan Clough (Kunstkammer Georg Laue, Munich, 2006), pp. 176-181, 245-246, cat. no. 44.
Jørgen Hein, “Ivories by Gottfried Wolffram,” Scandinavian Journal of Design History, vol. 1 (1991), pp. 7-34.
Jørgen Hein et al, The Treasure Collection at Rosenborg Castle, trans. Walton Glyn Jones, James Manley, and Tine Wanning, 3 vols. (Museum Tusculanum Press, Copenhagen, 2009).
Jutta Kappel, Bernsteinkunst aus dem Grünen Gewölbe (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, and Deutsches Kunstverlag, Munich, 2005), pp. 102-103, cat. no. 33.
Marcel Roethlisberger, “The Pérelles,” Master Drawings 5 (1967), pp. 283-285.

Alan P. Darr is the head of the European paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts department and the Walter B. Ford II Curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Images: Casket (Kasten) attributed to Gottfried Wolffram (active 1683-d. 1716), probably Copenhagen, Denmark, or Gdansk, Poland, c. 1695. Inscribed with old inventory number “83” on the bottom. Amber, ivory, and wood with fire-gilt and engraved brass hinges, velvet lining, gold trim, and marbled paper; height approximately 4 3⁄4, width approximately 11 7⁄8, depth approximately 7 7⁄8 inches. Detroit Institute of Arts, museum purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation Fund.