Object of the Month: May 2013
German, 19th century
While the Museum & Gallery’s collection of over 450 Old Master paintings garners most of the attention (and rightly so), there are other components to the collection, including furniture, tapestries, sculpture, antiquities, and objects of art. For example, this Meissen Urn arrests the attention of many guests with its intricate and delicate flowers and embellishments.
Europeans began collecting Chinese porcelain in the 16th century, even creating whole rooms to display the “china.” However, the formula for creating the beautiful substance eluded them. The path to the discovery of that formula resembles the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, who spun straw into gold. In the early 18th century, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, imprisoned Johann Böttger, an alchemist who claimed to know how to turn base metals, such as lead, into gold. As preposterous as that sounds, alchemy was the precursor to chemistry, as the name suggest. Not surprisingly, Böttger had little success with his project. However, when he applied his knowledge to the making of porcelain, he discovered something even more valuable—“white gold.”
The factories at Meissen and nearby Dresden began producing porcelain in the early 18th century and are still known for their quality products today. In addition to innumerable types of tableware, the factories also produced decorative objects such as statues and vases. In spite of its delicate appearance, porcelain is actually very strong and resists chips and cracks more easily than its sturdier-looking “cousins,” stoneware and earthenware.
At the center of the Meissen Urn in gallery 19 is a beautifully painted scene of Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael into the desert. Sarah stands in the background while the young Isaac, clinging to his father, seems upset that his half-brother is being sent away. The crown in the center is the crown of the Elector of Saxony. The crests below also refer to the Elector of Saxony. The crossed swords, one of his symbols, became the trademark symbol for Meissen porcelain.
Anne Short, Former Research Supervisor
Published in 2013