Enjoying a treasure trove of art on Christmas Day

I don´t know why I thought I could finally go see the Monet exhibition at the Albertina or the Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien on Christmas Day.   Vienna is completely over-crowded with tourists over the Christmas and New Year´s holidays.  I had purchased an Albertina gift membership for hubby and me, but the cards had not arrived by Christmas Eve, and when we got to the Albertina yesterday the line to get INTO the building seemed 50 meters long.   There was no way to skip that line without the card in hand.  So instead, on to the KHM we went, membership cards for that in our pockets.  As soon as we entered, we realized that many other people had had the same idea (duh!), and audioguides were sold out.  The Spitzmaus exhibition I had been aiming for was so crowded that we exited again after 3 minutes.  But, never give up!   Luckily there are many other exhibition halls at the KHM, and we opted to visit the Kunstkammer (“art chamber”), which I had not been to for quite a while.  And it was wonderful, and relatively peaceful, even on this busy museum day!

A “museum within the museum”

The KHM refers to the Kunstkammer as a “museum within the museum” on its website.  Indeed, it is extensive, consisting of twenty beautifully arranged galleries full of art collection pieces from the Middle Ages up until the 17th century.

Renaissance art is among my favorite, and in the halls of the Kunstkammer there is plenty of it to admire.  I love the elegant lines and often bright colors.   One striking Renaissance sculpture on display is the bust of a young woman by the Dalmatian sculptor Francesco Laurana.    It represents either Ippolita Maria Sforza, the wife of King Alfonso II of Naples, or their daughter Isabella.  Laurana made the bust  in simple, smooth spherical shapes and then breathed life into it with dyed wax.  Even the red flowers in her head cover are waxen.   This is the only of Laurana´s busts where the colors are still retained.

An early Renaissance bust of a young woman with head dress, dated around 1490, by the Dalmatian artist Francesco Laurana


Another very striking sculpture is a kind of triptych statue.  A young woman, a young man, and an old woman appearing to be near death stand in a circle to be viewed as symbols of different life stages.  The emaciated condition of the old body, with painted-on flies and musty-green hair are a foreshadowing of what will inescapably become of young life.

Allegory of transience, so-called Vanitas group, around 1470/1480 Artist Michel Erhart, OR Jörg Syrlin d. Ä., Ulm, linden wood


One could spend all day gawking at the intricate golden automatons, fist-sized carved “prayer nuts” or pocket sun-dials.  The little gilded machines that were meant to amuse guests at dinner parties of the rich and famous are particularly intriguing.  Gradually, the table centerpiece, which used to have practical functions, became a toy.  The mechanism for this ship’s automaton allows it to delight dinner guests by moving across the table while its crew dances to music sounding from within.  The ship was probably intended for Rudolf II, a foremost art collector of his day, as hinted at by the year 1585 of the inscription and the imperial double eagle on flags and banners.

An automaton in the form of a ship by Hans Schlottheim, 1585.

The level of detail in the carvings and relief and sculpture decoration on some “everyday” items (not so everyday nowadays, and even back then a privilege of the powerful and wealthy) of the collection is astounding.

There are a couple of such carved “prayer nuts” on display. This one is from the early 16th century, made from box wood and partially coloured.


Constantinople, Venice, Palermo, Paris, and Prague were European Centers of glyptic art in the Middle Ages. They produced costly vessels made from precious stones.

Footed Bowl from Prague, 14th century, from agate with amethyst inclusions and gilded silver

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Also on display are posh centerpieces, plates, and bowls made for kings from crystal, precious stones, gold and silver and decorated in fantastic reliefs.  Medieval game boards for players of chess (one of seven knightly virtues, visitors are told) or backgammon are decorated with unbelievable detail.

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I was bowled over by the  eye-popping Florentine landscape mosaics from the 1600s composed of cut semi-precious stones that are so skillfully put together that they look like paintings.

Left: Landscape with well and bare trees; Right: Landscape with obelisk – Cosimo Castrucci, before 1611, made from cut stones (agate and jaspers)


The origins of this treasure trove

One has to be grateful to art collectors among royalty for assembling and safeguarding works of such splendor.    Collections by Friedrich III, Maximilian I and Ferdinand I, Ferdinand II of Tirol (1529-1595), Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612), as well as the 17th century holdings of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm (1614-1662), brother of Emperor Ferdinand III and regent of the Netherlands, are assembled at the Kunstkammer today.  Rudolf II was raised at King Philipp II´s court and learned art appreciation there.  He was the most important art collector in the House of Habsburg.   Evidently more interested in art and science than in politics, he assembled a collection of high quality and exclusivity.  He did not have children and was eventually dis-empowered by his brother Matthias at his court in Prague, where he died in 1612.

Bronze bust of Emperor Rudolf II by Adriaen de Vries, Prague, dated 1603

   Some works of semiprecious stones, ivory and rhino horn carvings and miniature wax models stem from the 17th century Vienna Treasury, which was once the oldest of the Habsburg art collection.


There is so much to admire in this collection that I decided to leave some of it for another time lest all that splendor become overwhelming.  (Fortunately with my annual pass I can come any time and enjoy it in smaller doses.)

So, in the end, visiting the KHM during the Christmas holidays  turned out not to be such a bad idea after all.  Enjoy some glimpses into this outstanding exhibition in my photo gallery, and if you like this sort of thing, go see for yourself.

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Sources:  Website of the KHM, Descriptions under individual works of art, Wikipedia

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