Ask residents of Dresden, Germany what they think about this world-famous city and they will likely tell you that it is getting more beautiful every day.
Dresden is known for its picturesque setting along the Elbe River, its sumptuous architecture and its magnificent art treasures. In recent years, it has become the setting for several reconstruction projects resulting from significant damage it suffered when it was bombed during the night of February 13-14, 1945.
The most recognizable symbol of those efforts is the Frauenkirche. Built between 1723 and 1743, the Baroque church collapsed during the bombing. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the church was rebuilt with over €100 million of donations received from all over the world. Its distinctively shaped stone dome was rebuilt, and thousands of original pieces of sandstone were salvaged from the rubble. The stones were numbered, tested electronically for reusability, stored on steel shelves next to the ruin, and finally were restored to their original positions in the rebuilt church.
The Frauenkirche has been open for services, organ concerts and sightseeing tours since 2005. My dad and I enjoyed seeing the finished Frauenkirche, both inside and out.
Another extensive restoration and partial reconstruction project recently took place at the Dresden Royal Palace, the official residence of the rulers of Saxony that also suffered severe bombing damage. Finally being able to see the palace’s famous Historic Green Vault and New Green Vault is why I returned to Dresden.
Augustus the Strong was an insatiable collector of porcelain, statues, paintings, prints, drawings, etchings, jewelry, clocks, scientific instruments, coins, medals, weapons and objets d’art. Expanding on the items that his predecessors had acquired and displayed in the palace’s Kunstkammer since the 16th century, the legendary Saxon ruler collected even more rare, precious and unusual pieces that reflected not only his personal tastes, but also the achievements of his realm.
The magnificent collection was stored in a lavish treasure chamber known as the Historic Green Vault, so named because the capitals and bases of its columns were painted a distinctive shade of green that was the Saxon national color.
Storing the Green Vault’s treasures in Switzerland during the war enabled them to remain intact, but the eight rooms they once called home did not fare so well. Five were damaged during the bombing; three were completely destroyed. In recent years, the rooms of the Historic Green Vault were either reconstructed or restored, and they are open again for tours.
In order to protect the precious objects in the Historic Green Vault, a restricted number of visitors pass through a secured set of double doors. Admission to the museum is regulated by timed-entry tickets.
When I entered the first room, I could see why. Objects are grouped by type, arranged the way Augustus the Strong chose. They are displayed without showcases, either on marble-topped, carved wooden tables or on open shelves in front of mirrored walls that optically multiply them. The rooms are decorated and arranged to look more spectacular than the next.
Amber pieces and ivory vessels created on a specially designed turning lathe are presented against walls paneled with 12 kinds of polished Italian marble. Silver and gold objects are displayed against vermilion, green-lacquered and mirrored walls. Bronze statues and monuments are featured in an oak-paneled room. Jewels glimmer against black velvet in a room walled with gilded mirrors. The Hall of Precious Objects contains incredible vessels made of etched rock crystal, seashells, coconuts and ostrich eggs. Limoges enamel boxes are arranged on ornate tables along the walls.
The New Green Vault contains more than 1,000 unique objects considered to be the most famous items in the collection. Showcases fitted with anti-glare glass and state-of-the-art lighting help visitors examine every detail of these works of art. They include a clock with a rock crystal ball that rolled down a turned ivory column in exactly one minute, with automatons that produce musical sounds; a hat clasp with the 41-carat “Dresden Green” diamond; a cherry stone carved with 185 faces; Martin Luther’s cornelian signet ring; and a statue of a Moor carved from pear wood, adorned with jewelry and carrying a tray with an emerald lump studded with large and small emeralds.
That’s just the beginning. An ivory frigate with billowing sails and 50 tiny figures climbing in a rigging made of golden threads is equipped with cannons and anchors, and rests on a statue of Neptune, also carved from ivory. A silver and coral drinking vessel in the shape of a woman’s figure represents Daphne, who was saved from being pursued by Apollo by being changed into a laurel tree. A decorative basin made from chalcedony, gold, silver, ivory, diamonds, pearls and enamel depicts the goddess Diana’s bath, complete with a tiny bar resembling soap.
A solid gold and enamel coffee set rises on several levels like a pyramid, with 45 differently patterned vessels that resemble porcelain. It took the court jeweler four years to make, and Augustus the Strong 10 years to pay for it. Another incredible piece is Royal Household on the Birthday of Grand Mogul Aureng-Zeb, a 55-inch-wide stage with over 130 figures made of gold, silver, enamel, over 5,000 precious stones and pearls, and lacquer painting. Considered to be the primary work of European jewelry art from the Baroque period, it took the Saxon court jeweler eight years to finish it.
Small sculptures of a knife-grinder and a potter were made from ivory, enameled gold, pearls and precious stones; a clockwork mechanism turns the potter’s wheel. A one-eyed beggar on a peg leg and a Dutch ice skater are examples of over 50 mounted miniature statuettes whose designs were determined by the shape of a large, irregular pearl.
For more about the Green Vaults, read The Green Vault: An Introduction, by the State Art Collections in Dresden; The Dream of A King: Dresden’s Green Vault, edited by Dirk Syndram and Claudia Brink; and Gems of the Green Vault in Dresden and Renaissance and Baroque Treasury Art: The Green Vault in Dresden, both by Dirk Syndram; and “Dresden’s Stunning ‘Green Vaults,’” an article by Kay Lawrence in the June/July 2014 issue of German Life. To read more about Dresden’s art treasures, see The Glory of Baroque Dresden: The State Art Collections Dresden; and The Splendor of Dresden: Five Centuries of Art Collecting. For more on Augustus the Strong and his Porzellankrankheit, or porcelain sickness, read The White Road: Journey Into an Obsession, by Edwund De Waal.