Art Cabinet of Gustavus Adolphus

Whilst in Sweden I also managed to visit the art cabinet of Gustavus Adolphus, an incredible piece that has fascinated me for many years. Made in Augsburg, the cabinet was given as a gift to the Swedish King for liberating the town during the thirty years war, and it is now on view at Uppsala University. It is a monumental cabinet, filled with exotic objects, incorporating a music box, and surmounted by an extraordinary profusion of shells and a richly decorated seychelles nut. The base even hides a removable table, which can be used to view all of the items included within.

Normally the term ‘cabinet’ refers either to an item of furniture or a collection, but in this instance it encompasses both the elaborate container and the incredible objects within. It belongs to the tradition of the cabinet of curiosities, the princely collections of bizarre and marvellous objects compiled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These collections were understood as microcosms of the wider world, and they included both man-made and natural wonders, including many exotic items bought to Europe by the ever expanding trade networks. They embody the way in which knowledge was acquired and understood in the early modern period, as the juxtaposition of disparate objects invited infinite comparisons. Each item could then be categorised in terms of its similarities and differences with other items, and could be mapped accordingly in this complex web of knowledge.

Most cabinets of curiosities were compiled by wealthy and learned collectors, people who had the means and the interest needed to amass these wondrous items. This example is unusual as it was not put together by it’s future owner, Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, but by Phillip Hainhofer, an Augsburg merchant, shown on the wood inlay panel above inspecting one of his cabinets. Hainhofer was an extraordinary figure, who made a career out of collecting; he is known to have compiled many of these cabinets, although this is the only complete example extant today. His collections came housed in custom built cabinets, making full use of the highly skilled Augsburg craftsmen, renowned internationally for their cabinets.

Whilst perhaps not the most attractive piece of furniture, the Uppsala cabinet is a testament to the exceptional skills of these Augsburger artisans. The very fabric of the cabinet reflects the meeting of artificialia (craftsmanship) and naturalia (natural wonders) that encapsulates the ethos of these collections. It incorporates inlays of precious and exotic materials, artfully arranged into images of flowers and animals and also includes pieces of stone that have been overpainted with biblical scenes. Here, the artist has used the natural patterns in a slice of alabaster to represent tumultuous waves, as Moses closes the Red Sea, drowning the Pharaoh’s army.

The placement of Hainhofer’s collections inside actual cabinets (when many ‘cabinets of curiosities’ would have been housed in full sized rooms) placed a limitation on the size of the items included. For this reason, the cabinet contains many miniature items, including this pair of dolls and tiny bird house. These miniatures would have been a great novelty, and are now understood as a precursor to the elaborate Dutch cabinet houses and English dolls’ houses of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Explore the piece further on this website, where you can look through the different compartments of the cabinet (only available in Swedish).

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