If you’ve ever had the good fortune to visit Dresden, there’s a chance you might have found the time amidst the countless historic attractions to drop by one of the world’s great treasuries, the Green Vault housed inside the Dresden Castle.
Maurice of Saxony, who became Prince-Elect of the Holy Roman Empire during the 16th century, was an astute strategist and manipulator who significantly increased the wealth of his dynasty through a series of land deals. In 1647 he added a wing to the west side of his castle of residence to house a secret repository for his ever-increasing amount of valuables and documents. This new West Wing was built in stone and kept in a generous and highly ornate style with high, vaulted ceilings with most of it a characteristic bluish green, providing the descriptive name for the Green Vaults.
These chambers served as both a vault and an archive to the rulers of Saxony throughout the 17th century. In the early 18th century Augustus the Strong (1670-1733), Elector of Saxony, Imperial Vicar, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania expanded the repository by knocking down walls to create nine large, vaulted chambers of Baroque architecture.
Augustus the Strong was extremely dedicated to his responsibilities as a ruler. His reign has been summarized as one that brought significant improvements to the infrastructure, the economy and the arts in both Saxony and Poland. It is safe to say that he more than merely laid the foundation that made Dresden the center it is to this day. Very much the polymath, he is recognized for being a statesman, a builder, a collector and a passionate hunter. The careful and methodic clearing of a grid of paths throughout the Wermsdorf Forest bears testimony to his preference for parforce hunting, as does the fact that he laid the groundwork for the construction of what would become one of the Baroque era’s largest Jagdschloss, or hunting lodge, the Hubertusburg.
Following the security codes of their day, the Green Vaults were built entirely in stone. They remained unchanged until their near destruction during the Allied bombing the night of February 13, 1945. A couple of months on, the Red Army would confiscate the treasures and relocate them. They would not be returned to their original home until 1958. Twelve years after the German reunification were the Green Vaults reconstructed and restored to the Historic Green Vault and the New Green Vault we see today.
Augustus was a patron of the arts and architecture and as such did not believe in keeping the repository closed to the outside world. By the time he threw the doors to the Green Vaults open around 1730, he had transformed them into acabinet of curiosities—for a select crowd only—so they could admire a magnificent layout of the accumulated dynastic treasures of objets d’art, jewelry and other rarities. In doing so, Augustus effectively had created one of the first museums in the world.
In 1698, five years after arriving in Dresden, master goldsmith Johann Melchior Dinglinger received the honor of being elevated to the status of jeweler to Augustus’ court. Having apprenticed in his native Ulm, he had journeyed the goldsmith centers of his time— Vienna, Nuremberg and Augsburg, then the epicenter and provider of all things artistic and precious to the courts across the Holy Roman Empire and beyond. Johann Melchior had two brothers: Georg Friedrich was an enameler and Georg Christian another goldsmith with a specialty in setting gemstones. With few exceptions most of what the Dinglingers created was for Augustus and many artists associated with him. Another prominent client was Russian Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725), who would sometimes stay at Johann Melchior Dinglinger’s home.
There was Balthasar Permoser, who was educated in Salzburg and journeyed to Vienna and Italy, spending most of his time in Florence. Having risen to where he was recognized as one of the foremost sculptors of the Baroque and early Rococo, Permoser was called to Dresden, where, like other artists of his caliber, was appointed court sculptor. Nearly his entire œuvre was created for Augustus the Strong. As such, he carried the ideas and sculptural sensitivities of the Italian Baroque across the Alps where he would share them during his collaborations with the Dinglinger brothers and others, such as the court architect and master builder Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann. It was Pöppelmann whom Augustus entrusted with the upgrading of the Green Vaults. But it was the Zwinger of Dresden, that landmark Rococo palace where architecture and sculpture synthesize to an inseparable unit that represents the pinnacle of the collaboration between Pöppelmann and Permoser.
Myths and Subject Matter
As the patron exclusive, Augustus held a lot of sway over artistic content and impressed with the artistic ability of providing artists with clear and detailed sketches of what he wanted. This was also a time of synthesis between the Age of Discovery and the Age of Enlightenment and artistic content reached from classical mythology to how domestic Europeans imagine the distant new worlds in the Americas and the Orient.
The splendidly ornate basins were a table item that was very much en vogue at the time and every self-respecting master goldsmith created their own variation on this theme, if only to prove their creative prowess and technical virtuosity. When it came to content, subject matter and myth, Diana, goddess of the hunt was a popular motif—not only among goldsmiths and silversmiths, but visual artists of the Baroque in general.
One of the Dinglingers early versions of such an ornate basin, commissioned by Augustus the Strong was Diana’s Bath. It is prominently displayed in the Green Vaults as one of the main attractions. It tells the tale of Diana and Actaeon true to Book III of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in a kind of sculptor’s version of a cross-cut. While preparing for her bath beneath her baldaquin, Diana (carved in ivory by Balthazar Permoser) is being entertained by a putto. Two dolphins (silver) are jumping over the rim of a chalcedony basin that is carved so thin that it is translucent. At the opposite end, a hound is guarding her hunting gear. The entire base below represents a counterpoint: the unsuspecting hunter Actaeon, having stumbled out of the woods and caught a glimpse of the naked Diana has been turned into a stag (enameled silver with gold antlers) as punishment for violating her chastity. No longer recognizing their master, Actaeon’s own hounds (enameled silver) tear him to bits. The base carries the engraved inscription in French, “Discretion sert effronterie perd”—discretion is useful, insolence loses. Augustus acquired the piece for 8000 Thalers.
The one piece not to be missed is Johann Melchior Dinglinger’s masterpiece, the Court of Aurengzeb. It is widely recognized as going beyond merely a masterpiece of European jewelry craft, but representing the ultimate centerpiece and reference. It took the three Dinglingers six years to complete the piece measuring 23 X 56 X 45 inches with the assistance of another sculptor to the court, Johann Benjamin Thomae. The Court of Aurengzeb is too imposing to serve as a mere table piece, but requires its very own presentation table.
Although they never met in person, Augustus very much admired and probably envied Aurengzeb, who was Augustus’ contemporary and the absolute ruler over all of India from 1658-1707. His wealth was said to be immeasurable. The Dinglingers made authenticity a priority and didn’t leave a stone unturned in their research, basing the entire set upon travel reports and whatever literature on the orient was available in their day. The one small and artistically permissible liberty they took were cameo appearances of previous work of their own: while Aurangzeb is throning beneath a baldaquin, his nobles congregate to humbly present him with their gifts, 32 in all. One of these birthday presents is a miniature of the famous Golden Coffeeset Johann Melchior Dinglinger had sold to August the Strong in 1701 for the proud sum of 50,000 Thalers.
Artistry and Science
During the Baroque, diamonds were cut and polished by rubbing them against flat wood and leather charged with diamond powder and olive oil. Every facet was a slow and laborious process, and the method was similar with colored or ornamental stones. The concept of industrial-sized production runs was inconceivable until well into the Industrial Age. The mere idea of reproduction was considered blasphemous, and it isn’t hard to imagine the reaction of a patron like Augustus the Strong had the Dinglingers and other protégés of his been offering copies of their work to courts around Europe.
The order of the day was hand fabrication in its original form: casting ingots of precious metals that were hammered or rolled into stock from which individual components were cold-formed, assembled and possibly enameled, set with gems or both. Somewhere along the way they were surface finished and polished, which was a matter of arduously burnishing with polished hematite or agate tips. Let’s not forget that the availability of supplies was not to be taken for granted. Often the metals, glass for enameling and various chemicals required for processing and recycling needed to be further purified to be workable. It comes as no surprise that the skill requirements of these professional artists were such that budding Baroque scientists were required to apprentice two years under a master goldsmith as part of the standard curriculum.
Owing in great part to the vision and sense of responsibility of Augustus the Strong, Saxony and Poland attracted nothing but the cream of the crop. Professional artists like the Dinglinger brothers, Johann Melchior being the most prominent of the three, are among of the great goldsmiths and innovators of their field and have put the Green Vaults of Dresden on equal footing with Benvenuto Cellini’s Florence or Christoph Jamnitzer’s Nuremberg. Take a look for yourself at the Staatliche Kunstsammlung Dresden’s panoramic tour by typing www.skd.museum/en/explore/panoramic-tour–Robert Ackermann, G.G.