Dresden's Hidden Treasure since the Green Vault
The first place I wanted to visit in Dresden was the fabled "Green Vault". The Green Vault or Grünes Gewölbe is Europe's largest collection of precious, historical treasures. It was the first public museum in all of Europe featuring a collection of crown jewels, royal bowls carved out of crystal, agate and ivory, golden figurines with multicoloured gems inlaid within and the ‘Dresden Green’ - the largest green diamond in the world. When walking up to the Green Vault, I suppose you expect to see a big green building but in fact, the gallery got its name a different way. During it's original construction, the columns and bases which held up the vaulted ceiling were all painted green - giving the entire place an Emerald city like vibe.
Augustus the Strong was the ruler of Saxony and lived in Dresden in the 18th century. He was a very wealthy man and adored his city. He spent time, money and effort to make Dresden the jewel of all Europe. He wanted the best artists from all over the world to congregate there to live, work and create commissions for his kingdom.
Dresden now is not as well known as Florence or Berlin, but in the 18th century, it was referred to as the Venice of the Elbe. Augustus’ had some of the finest jewellers, metalworkers and artists working round the clock to create treasures for him that would rival any royal collection to the world over. But the treasurer's served a severe purpose in addition to looking so beautiful. They represented to any visitor the state monetary reserve that could be limited in times of war or need.
Dresden was very heavily bombed during WWII. Luckily, early warnings allowed the King's men to hide the treasures in a fortress far away from the city. But alas, this did not keep them safe forever. When the Red Army invaded, they took the collection with them back home to Moscow and Kiev. After years and years of negotiation, the pieces were brought back to Dresden and after the reconstruction of the Green Vault, they were back on display to the people in 2005. The baroque galleries and ornate consoles on which the collection stood have been restored to their original brilliance, and you can walk through the rooms just as hundreds of people would have done years before.
In the same building, on the floor above, there is also the Neues Grünes Gewölbe or New Green Vault, which houses, even more, treasures. This gallery keeps it's a piece inside glass cases which you can get right up close to so you can see every little detail of these tiny jewels. But this part of the museum is more modern and looks much more like a jewellery store than it does a baroque palace.
The line up for tickets to these galleries was intense. There are only so many tickets per hour as they limit the number of people they let inside. We arrived very early, probably too early in fact, and so spent the next few minutes before the lines opened, enjoying our coffee while perusing the large art bookstore next to the museum. This place was a dream; there were hundreds of art book, paper doll collections, postcards, pieces of jewellery and more. It was probably my favourite store we visited on our entire trip. I could have just lived in here.
Finally, after seeing the line begin to form we quickly nabbed a spot in line. Hundreds of people started lining up behind us and luckily we did end up getting two tickets for one of the first entries of the day. We made our way into the waiting room where we were to wait until our timed ticket would allow us inside. The waiting room featured an introductory audio program and various pieces from the collection that aren't currently on display in the gallery. There were enamel collections from the Middle Ages and early Renaissance featuring beautiful illustrations painted onto dishes and tableware meant for the royal family.
There were also pictures throughout this room of the pre-war condition of the Green Vault. Giving you an idea of the extent of destruction and reconstruction required to bring this place back to life.
We were not allowed to take any pictures while inside the gallery, which yes pained me, but also allowed me to be one with the works of art and allow myself to explore only and listen to the audio guide as I walked through the rooms. I searched the internet for any little photos I could find that would help detail the experience of walking through the gallery, but there isn't anything like being there in person.
When it was time to enter the gallery, you approached a set of glass doors with your ticket and were quickly given a once over by security. Then you walk through a dust proof double door which sucks out all the air from you entering before opening the second set of doors. This is because when you are in the gallery, everything isn’t behind glass. The tiny pieces of the collection are displayed on gilt shelves which hover like flying carpets against mirrored walls, just as the King once displayed them.
The first room you come into after exiting the spaceship-like dust proof room is The Bernsteinkabinett (the Amber Cabinet). The exhibit in here includes 16th-century vessels, bowls, ceremonial cutlery and statuettes produced in the amber workshops in Königsberg and Danzig. Amber art was thought to be the most luxurious of all the art forms, and so it was no surprise that it found its way into royal chambers. Many of the pieces were given to Augustus the Strong from the King of Prussia, as Prussia was famous for its skilled Amber sculptures. The small Amber Cabinet, the showpiece of this room, was one of those gifts. It's incredible hand work is astonishing. The tiny amber drawers with inlaid gold are fantastic. There is something about Amber art that is transfixing. It seems to swirl and change shape as the light reflect upon its glasslike surface.
After the Amber room, you enter the Elfenbeinzimmer (the Ivory Room). Save for a few numbered plaques; it doesn’t feel like a museum at all. It only feels like you’re walking through a beautiful house you’ve been invited into. The small groups of people that are let in allow for the space to feel full but not too over crowded. Everyone respects the silence or low talking and despite being a touristy place, it does feel relatively peaceful. Atop all the shelves were a variety of small carved statues made from real ivory. The ivory towers with impossibly tiny spirals inside are still one of the most amazing pieces of art and engineering. I cannot imagine how skilful and still those hands who made that must be. The bright white ivory is set against coloured terracotta marble and a dark red and black tiled floor.
The next room is the Weißsilberzimmer (the White Silver Room). This room displays some of the finest examples of silver plates, flatware, buffets, oversized silver vessels and large pieces for dinner service from Augustus the Strong. This room is painted floor to ceiling in emerald green and trimmed in gold to contrast the silver on display. The vaulted ceilings are bright white and accented with elaborate details.
These silver pieces are some of the best examples of silversmith’s artwork from the 17th and 18th century. There are no older pieces in this room as lots of the pieces from the early periods were melted down either because they didn't fit the new style or because they were minted for money for the crown. There is even a solid gold drinking bowl of Ivan the Terrible on display, one of Augustus’ prized possessions. Along one wall, the shelves are dedicated to the gold ruby glass of the royal palace. It’s dark red colour pops against the green walls. The red colour was produced by adding gold chloride to it as it cooked. The ruby glass was frequently associated with magical powers. Coral was also thought to have magical properties and as such was incorporated into many silver gilt designs from the 17th-18th century.
As you pass through the Emerald green of the White Silver Room, you come upon the Silbervergoldete Zimmer (the Silver Gilt Room). This room, in contrast to the previous, is painted a deep vermillion. The mirrors in this room are smaller but formed into various baroque shapes. This room features gilded silver pieces and gold drinking vessels as well as carved figurines. The majority of the figurines feature the stories of Greek myths, but some of them also feature historical figures.
One of the most striking pieces in this room is a jewellery box made of gilded silver, mother of pearl and precious stones. It was a Christmas gift that Electoral Christian I gave to his wife Sophie in 1585. Inside the lid of the box was once a tiny clock but only fragments of the clock have been preserved. One can only imagine which precious jewels that Sophie kept inside this box.
As you enter the next room, you notice right away that this is the largest of all the rooms. This is the Pretiosensaal (Hall of Treasures). This room reminded me greatly of the Chandelier Gallery in Versaille.
It was not as big perhaps but even more opulent. Along each wall, from floor to ceiling were gilded ostrich eggs, nautilus and sea snails set in silver, vessels made of coloured gems and ambers, microscopic portraits inlaid onto ornate cherry wood boxes and even rock crystal bowls decorated with Grecian heroines.
In the Middle ages, rock crystal was believed to have magical powers. I think you can see a theme emerging. The King wanted not only the finest things in his collection but anything that would perhaps imbue him with more power. Since the crystal is pure, it was thought to symbolise God and the purity of the Virgin Mary.
But not everything was so roundly spiritual. In fact, some of them were an affront to God, at least that's how some people viewed them. The gilded ostrich eggs formed into different animal shapes were very popular in the 16th century. Saxony was one of the wealthiest countries of the time, and they loved showing off their wealth any place they could. This resulted in the creation of some of this outlandish drinking vessels. There were glasses made from ostrich eggs and sea snail shells, goblets made of mother of peal and even coconuts inlaid with gemstones. These were thought to be the inventions of the devil and deplored by God in Heaven by many of the monks who served the King.
The Wappenzimmer (the Heraldry Room) features copper and gilded coats of arms of the Saxon provinces, the Polish state coat of arms and the original plates of the House of Wettin electorates. This room serves as a nice break from the sensually overwhelming places previous. Some of these plates still bare the damage of the bombings, and you can see the burnt metal’s edges almost peeling away. An excellent example of how fire can burn through almost anything.
Up next is the Juwelenzimmer (Jewel Chamber). In here are the crown jewels of the Saxon-Polish royalty. There are golden pendants, necklaces and rings, the electoral swords and modern gem sets. The room looks like a bedazzled royal coat of arms. Blue and crimson walls are decorated with ornamental fields of mirrors and covered in gold engravings.
It's in this room that the real crown jewel of the Green Vault is the impossibly rare Dresden Green; a massive, naturally irradiated, green diamond from India. It is embedded in a statue called the "Moor with Emerald Cluster" or the "Jewel Garniture" and the "Obeliscus Augustalis". It is a flawless hunk of green carbon, unfined and perfect. Augustus was obsessed with possessing rare and precious stones. He was so impressed with this gem that he didn't want to ruin it's natural state and therefore commissioned statuettes to be designed to carry the precious stone.
One of my favourite pieces from the gem room is the Sapphire collection. In the 16th and 17th century, the Sun King Louis XIV had started a trend of the set of jewellery all designed in a uniform style. This meant that buttons, buckles, weapons, snuff boxes, pocket watched, hat decorations and more all possessed similar designs and detailing. This kind of attire gave off the impression of absolute monarchy throughout the royal family, and Augustus had to maintain this sort of collection for himself. And did so with his signature Sapphires.
The final room is the Raum der Renaissance bronzes (Room of Renaissance Bronzes). This room was the least impressive to me. It did feature some beautiful bronze sculptures from the 17th century, but their scale was less impressive to me as the large-scale sculptures from this period and their overall dull nature after seeing the colours and sparkles of the previous room set this exhibit up to fail.
After we had finished in the bronze room, we headed through one more set of dust proof doors to exit into the gift shop and the world outside. This was one of my favourite museums I've ever been to, so different, so much to absorb. I can't wait to return with fresh eyes to see things I missed the first time around.