The Zwinger in Dresden

By Tracy A. Burns

prague-dresden-zwingerIf you are in Dresden and have an interest in art or porcelain, the Zwinger is the place to be. The Rococo Zwinger palace houses 750 paintings from the 15th to 18th century by renowned masters in its Old Masters Picture Gallery plus 20,000 porcelain artifacts in its Dresden Porcelain Collection. The Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments also calls this former fortification home.  The name Zwinger comes from the medieval German word for part of a fortification between the outer and inner walls, where cannons had been fired. During the 18th century, the Saxon elector, Polish King, and Grand duke of Lithuania Augustus II the Strong turned the fortification into a house of many treasures.

The Old Masters Picture Gallery

Founded elsewhere in 1560, the museum did not focus on paintings until Augustus II the Strong and his son Frederick Augustus II acquired an extraordinary collection during the 18th century.  The Semper Gallery wing was not built until the middle of the 19th century. Before World War II began, the Nazis evacuated the paintings, storing most of them in a climate-controlled tunnel in Switzerland. On February 13, 1945, the Zwinger was seriously damaged by the bombing. The Soviets transferred the paintings to the Soviet Union after the war, and they remained there until after Stalin’s death, in 1956. Yet not all the paintings were returned. Over 200 artworks were destroyed, and more than 500 were lost. Some 450 canvases still have not been found.

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What to see in the Old Masters Picture Gallery

When the Semper Gallery opened its doors again in 1960, the public could view part of the collection. Spanning Renaissance to Baroque eras, the collection sparkles with paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer,  Jan van Eyck, Raphael, Titian, Correggio, and Tintoretto, to name just a few of the numerous legendary artists whose creations fill the space. Italian Renaissance and 17th century Dutch and Flemish works are highlights of the collection. Visitors can appreciate about 40 percent of the collection these days, including the world’s largest number of paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger. The Semper Gallery has acquired 58 canvases by these Renaissance German painters.  The 19th and 20th-century masterpieces are now in the New Masters Gallery in the Albertinum museum.

The Sistine Madonna

A few of the stars of the collection include Raphael’s The Sistine Madonna, the pride of the collection as well as the Dresden Triptych and Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter.  Depicting the Madonna and Child flanked by Saint Sixtus and Saint Barbara, The Sistine Madonna is the most famous piece in the Zwinger. Commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1512, the Madonna and Child are floating on a cloud while two cherubs beneath them have their elbows on the top of an altar. The cherubs will probably look familiar as their image has graced postcards and has been the source of many legends.  Numerous artists have drawn inspiration from this painting, including writers Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as well as composer Richard Wagner and philosopher Frederich Nietzsche.

The Dresden Triptych

The only existing triptych by Jan van Eyck, the Dresden Triptych hails from 1437. The center panel shows the Madonna, clad in a lavish red gown, and the Child in a church, an Oriental carpet in front of them. Positioned in the nave, the Madonna and Child have been placed where the altar should be. A close look at Mary reveals that her body is out of proportion in the Romanesque place of worship. The spatial depth and subtle contrasts of light and shadow play significant roles in the painting.

A masterpiece by Vermeer

In Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window from 1657 to 1658, the Dutch Baroque master Vermeer has depicted a young, blond woman standing in front of a window while perusing a letter that historians claim is a love letter from an extramarital affair.  She is reflected in the green drapery that takes up one-fourth of the space. Its hue complements her green dress. A table has been covered in a red tablecloth. On it, there are two halves of a peach. The pit is visible, too. When Augustus III bought the painting in 1742, he was convinced it was a masterpiece by Rembrandt.

Dresden Porcelain Collection

Established in 1715 by Augustus II the Strong, the Dresden Porcelain Collection includes 20,000 pieces of Chinese, Japanese and Meissen pieces gathered by the Saxon elector from 1670 to 1733. The Saxon ruler and Polish king had planned to install the porcelain in a Japanese palace he was building for himself, but he died before it was completed. The collection includes blue-and-white Chinese porcelain from the Ming and Qing dynasties as well as traditional Chinese and Japanese porcelain. Porcelain sculptures make up a major part of the collection. Monumental gourd-shaped vessels, Imari porcelain with gold décor, and pure white Chinese porcelain from Dehau all make appearances.

Some remarkable pieces

Some remarkable pieces include a Chinese dragon vase from 1735 to 1795. Situated among clouds and waves, the dragon represents water, rain, and energy as well as the power of the emperor. A long, snake-like body with five claws and red bats take on meanings as well. A Chinese-covered jar shows flowers growing out of a rock with a strange hole, a scholar in a long gown, a river landscape with a small pavilion, a phoenix, and a beast with horns breathing fire.

The Meissen Collection

But the highlight is the extensive display of Meissen porcelain. The rulers of Saxony created the state Meissen factory for the production of fine porcelain, first imitating Chinese ware, and then leaning more and more toward Western style. Swans, roosters, birds, peacocks, ewes, elephants, and monkeys are made out of Meissen as are dishes, tureens, covered boxes, small bottles, plates, and bowls. Perhaps the most impressive Meissen sculpture is the 1753 model of the equestrian statue of King Augustus III. The Saxon leader’s head is raised high as he firmly grips the reins of his horse that does a courbette. Above him is Envy while the river gods are positioned in front of him. The virtues of the monarch take on allegorical forms.

The Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments

This museum in Pavilion F of the Zwinger shows off mechanical and mathematical instruments from 1600, terrestrial and celestial globes, large telescopes, and burning mirrors. Also, clocks and watches over the centuries make up a significant part of the collection. While the collection was originally housed in the ducal armor chamber during the 15th century, it began to call the Zwinger home in 1728. The royal cabinet displays more than 3,000 artifacts – clocks plus mathematical and scientific instruments.

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