A new gallery has opened up at the Museum of Fine Arts, and it’s a wonder to behold. It’s the Kunstkammer gallery, and it re-creates the collection displays — often known in English as “curiosity cabinets” — developed by princely patrons and wealthy individuals in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.
These displays, forerunners of the modern museum, were fascinating hybrids of scientific inquiry, aesthetic refinement, and various forms of eccentricity, exoticism, and bizarrerie.
The MFA’s Kunstkammer gallery, which is beautifully done, overflows with fascinating objects, elaborately crafted from all sorts of rare or unusual materials (it’s worth paying close attention to the wall labels for this reason alone). It even has a smattering of first-rate paintings by the likes of Corneille de Lyon and Joachim Wtewael.
One of the stand-out objects — and a nice index to the general principle at work behind Kunstkammers — is this sculpture of Diana, goddess of the hunt, riding side saddle on a stag.
It is made from cast and chased silver. Parts of it are gilded, other parts painted with lacquer. In one hand the goddess holds a chain that connects her to one of her hunting dogs. Various other dogs, creatures, and flora, some of them out of scale, are arrayed around the stag’s feet.
Well, it’s a fine object. But what if I said it could also move, and even — unassisted — suddenly change direction?
It is, in fact, an automaton, designed to play the lead role in a drinking game at courtly banquets.
If you’re skeptical, there’s a short video on a discrete touch screen in the gallery that lets you see for yourself. The automaton has a wind-up motor inside the base. Released, it surges forward. Diana jiggles somewhat nervously on her mount, and then turns at right angles, before continuing on a little further.
The idea was that if she stopped near you, you would have to take off the stag’s head and drink heartily from its hollow body.
What fun! The piece bears the mark of Joachim Fries, a goldsmith from Augsburg active in the late 16th and early 17th centuries who made more than one of these much-sought-after automata. It belonged to the princely Reuss family, but went missing after their castle in Gera, Germany, was bombed in the final period of World War II.
It was presumed lost, but, according to MFA research, was probably taken by the occupying Soviet army. It appeared again in 1985, and was returned to the Reuss family by the city of Gera. They then sold it to the MFA.