Collector’s Chest, ca. 1570
Silver gilt, ebony, lapis lazuli, feldspar, bloodstone, amethyst quartz, and cold enamel
Gift of the Abbie Norman Prince Trust, the Frederick Henry Prince Trust, and the Friends of the Martin D’Arcy Gallery, 1978-09
This exquisite chest features an elaborate system of drawers as well as a concealed safe-like compartment in the center adorned with a gilded roundel of Medusa's head. Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, may have commissioned the chest, which later belonged to Queen Christina of Sweden.
The artist, Wenzel Jamnitzer of Nuremberg, was one of the most renowned goldsmiths of the sixteenth century. He helped to establish Nuremberg as a center for goldsmith design and production for nearly a century. His reputation earned him commissions from the most powerful and prominent patrons of Europe, including frequent commissions from four successive Holy Roman Emperors: Charles V (1500–1558), Ferdinand I (1503–1564), Maximilian II (1527–1576), and Rudolf II (1552–1612). This chest, signed by Jamnitzer, is one of only five extant and is considered the finest example in North America.
Decorated on all sides with twelve Olympian gods, attached pilasters, urns, and finials, the chest resembles a temple. The theme of the Olympian gods, as well as the sumptuous materials of the chest, would have appealed to a royal patron, such as one of the emperors for whom Jamnitzer worked.
The elongated, somewhat distorted figures of the gods on the chest represent a style called mannerism. Mannerism was extremely fashionable in the European courts of the sixteenth century, and was characterized by complexity, amusement, bizarre elements and distortion. The intricacy of the chest's system of drawers and compartments, the whimsy of designs such as the sphinxes and lions, and playful elements such as the Medusa head reveal Jamnitzer's mastery of Mannerism.
The Medusa's head on the center secret compartment is of particular interest. According to Greek myth, anyone who gazed upon Medusa would be turned to stone. Upon opening the outer doors of the chest, one is faced with her image, guarding the treasure concealed within the central compartment. This compartment likely contained a particularly precious gem or piece of jewelry. Collectors' chests such as this were intended to hold not only jewelry, but a variety of natural and man-made objects as well. For example, the many drawers may have been filled with feathers, shells, measuring devices, tools, and other instruments. Chests such as this functioned in numerous ways. First, they were a means of displaying one's power, prestige, wealth, and cultural attainments in order to express princely magnificence. Also, these collections functioned as microcosms, symbolizing a ruler's mastery over the world. Finally, these collections were instructional, helping a ruler to understand nature, science, and art.