The Amber Study of King Frederick I

Written by  Wiesław Gierłowski

The amber study at the Berlin Stadtschloss was to fulfil the aspirations for splendour of Duke-Elector Frederick III, who crowned himself on January 18, 1701 as “Friedrich I, King in Prussia,” in the newly sovereign Prussian state. Embroiled in the terrible Great Northern War, the already weakened Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was not strong enough to oppose the emancipation of its former vassal. Although the study's purpose was to be a statement of aspirations contrary to those of Poland, the piece itself was the work of Polish artists from Gdansk.

Andreas Schlüter – designer

No doubt the direct decision on the choice of the study's makers was made by Andreas Schlüter, its designer, the then director of royal construction, an architect, sculptor and interior designer, who came from the Gdansk artistic environment. Born in 1659, the talented graduate of the local Academic Grammar School performed his first architectural designs in Gdańsk. Traces of some of them survived: the sculptures on the baroque Royal Chapel and the façade of a burgher tenement house at 37 Long Market (Dlugi Targ), the representative city square, thus documenting the youth period in the artist's output. For the next 5 years (until 1688), Schlüter worked as a sculptor near Gdansk in Catholic cathedrals in Frombork (tombstones: Praetorius', the secretary to the King of Poland John III Sobieski and the praepositus Adam Konarski's) and in Oliva (the altar).

These early works ensured the artist recognition and a career at the court of King John III Sobieski (sculptures at the Wilanow palace in Warsaw), with aristocratic families related to the king: the Zolkiewskis (tombstones in Zolkwia and Warsaw) and the Krasinskis (reliefs and figural sculptures at the grand palace in Warsaw). Luckily, Schlüter's works in Poland (and in Zolkwia, situated just outside the Polish border in the vicinity of Lviv) survived the last war. In total, many more works by this author survived from his work in Poland than from the Berlin period. The scale and character of these works give much more material for comparison with the concept of the amber study than the later architectural structures from Berlin.

In 1694, Schlüter was employed by Duke-Elector of Prussia-Brandenburg Frederick III at a prominent post of the director of royal construction performed at that time on a very grand scale. The City Palace (Stadtschloss) of the future king of Prussia Frederick I in the very centre of Berlin (regrettably destroyed after World War II) was designed by Schlüter in the style of the epoch, which gave him a scale largely exceeding the actual administrative needs of the small country. While doing the interior design work, the artist, who knew the skills of Gdansk amber workshops from experience, designed a royal study which could not be funded by any other ruler for the shortage of material.

Thanks to this, the most famous work from Andreas Schlüter's 11-year work period in Berlin, was created. Admittedly, the amber study was not completed but as the first contractor, Gottfried Wolfram, fulfilled the design principles and the practical solution of the construction of huge (369 x 188 cm) panneaux for the middle section of the walls from the fragile material, it resulted a few dozen years later in the creation of a great work which was contributed to by the work and inventiveness of artists from half of Europe: the Amber Room in Tsarskoye Selo.

Amber frames

The decor made in Berlin 1701-1712 included three earlier mirror frames, made in the late 1670s in Gdansk (with perhaps one of them made in Elblag) to the order of the Duke-Elector of Saxony as a diplomatic gift to the Great Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia Frederick William I. These frames possess all the characteristic features of baroque amber artefacts originating from Gdansk workshops in the last quarter of the 17 th century. They are distinguished by their enormous dimensions: the height of all three frames is 142 cm, while the width, although diverse, is also very large: 125, 120 and 116 cm. This is already a harbinger of the dominance of amber in the palace room intended for them. The intention to treat the frames as a single ensemble is manifested by the common subject matter of the depictions in the medallions: an Old Testament Bible story.

Somewhat later (ca. 1680), the Great Elector ordered an even larger (150 x 126 cm) and more lavish frame from Gdansk master Nikolaus Turau. This frame had multiple motifs (with cycles depicting the parts of the world, ancient warlords, great kingdoms, famous women, Bible scenes and many more) and was built of some 1500 (sic!) details sculpted in low-relief, connected with “gemstones”: cabochons, diamond-cut stones and cameos.

The gift was probably to be given to the Sun King, Louis XIV, although the artefact's history following the French Revolution is unclear. It was only in 1991 that it appeared at an auction in London and was purchased for the collection of the Berlin Museum of Decorative Arts. The signature of Nikolaus Turau, known from other pieces, was erased, but it would be difficult to name any competing workshop of similar potential at the time, as this was a time when such masters as Christoph Maucher and Gottfried Wolfram would meet at Turau's workshop.

Maucher worked with Turau in 1576-1577 on a magnificent gift from the Great Elector of Brandenburg Frederic William to Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. The gift was an impressive amber chair: a true imperial throne.

Prior to his invitation to work on the amber study in Berlin in 1701, Gottfried Wolfram was the royal amber craftsman of Danish King Christian V. Dr. Mogens Bencard, the curator of the Danish Royal Amber Collection at Rosenborg Castle, who recognises Wolfram as one of the most prolific artists at the court of the Danish Royal Family, emphasises Wolfram's Gdansk roots and the influence of the Gdansk amber milieu on the form and techniques used in his work.

The makers of the study's decor

Wolfram carried out the design of the study's decor, developed by Schlüter for a specific interior (probably a corner room on the second floor of the palace which was then being built in the centre of Berlin, i.e. the Stadtschloss). This idea has been suggested by the diversified sizes of the designed panels. The decoration was to be placed on two levels:

1. a plinth, or low wainscot (87 cm from the floor) divided by slightly protruding bases of pilasters; a narrow ledge separated the plinth from the basic surface of the wall;

2. the decoration over the ledge was 369 cm high and was divided into 8 parts of various width. The widest components measured 188 cm, the narrowest 138 cm. Huge, sail-sized panneaux were supposedly joined by pilasters, whose width must have also been diversified because of the dimensions of the walls and the location of the doorways and window openings. The widest panneaux were 56 cm wide, the narrowest – 25 cm wide. The height of the pilasters was certainly equal to that of the main panels (369 cm) because they also reached from the ledge on the plinth to the cornice under the plafond. The entire work was to be crowned by the cornice composed of architectural profiles and sculptures (roses, tulips, monsters and the typically Schlüterian heads of dying warriors).

The full height of the room was nearly 5 metres, almost entirely decked with amber, with only narrow fragments of wood carvings and mirrors in frames.

It was Wolfram who became the pioneer who enjoyed the honour and undertook the task of constructing strong and durable compositions of a fragile material on the surface of ca. 7 m 2 . He succeeded in his task to make 3 large compositions, i.e. almost half of the entire project, in the course of six years. Wolfram knew from experience to avoid the disastrous method of fastening amber plates and shapes directly onto the wood with adhesive, so he avoided the mistake which had led to the destruction of many pieces of furniture with amber facing (for instance, the so called “cabinets”).

Just as with the furniture, the decoration in the Prussian king's study was to be placed on wooden panels. However, Wolfram prevented direct contact between the amber and wood. He placed gilded brass foil between the layer of amber decoration and massive oak panes (with iron anchors to hold them at the walls). The foil separated the two materials and, additionally, made a perfect reflective background for the translucent amber pieces. The golden lining enhanced the delicate engravings and intaglio scenes at the bottom of the translucent plates and lenses, and added glitter to such meticulous reliefs as rocaille, etc.

The flat mosaic background was made of thin plates (only 5 mm thick) which were sometimes laid with little geometric regularity. This delicate part of the composition was surrounded and supported by a layout of intricate ornaments, frames and cartouches, which were had a much stronger structure and which, thanks to diversified and rounded shapes, helped to achieve the sufficient rigidity of all large elements.

Wolfram also made the majority of elements for plinths under Schlüter's personal guidance. He was already half-way through in his work when disaster struck. Due to some court intrigues, Andreas Schlüter was dismissed from his post of Director of Royal Construction, and his substitute, Eosander von Göthe , a colonel of the guard, made an instant decision to sack Wolfram. He imposed sequestration on his workshop and took the already completed work to Charlottenburg Castle to modify it to fit a different room. Wolfram's long years spent trying to regain his workshop and payment for work were to no avail and finally the master had to flee from Prussia under threat of arrest.

Having disqualified Gottfried Wolfram under a false accusation of “being able to do only what a simple lathe turner can do,” Eosander von Göthe tried to find a replacement of the highest skill possible. Inevitably, he had to address the leading Gdańsk Guild of Amber Masters. The completion of the decor of the amber study was undertaken by masters: Gottfried Turau, the head of the Guild, and Ernst Schacht, who signed a suitable contract in January 1707.

The masters had been working intensely with their apprentice teams for 6 years until 25 February 1713, when king Frederick I died. During that period, they managed to leave the masterpiece designed by Andreas Schlüter almost completed. First, they finished 5 grand panneaux and the remaining elements of the plinth began by Wolfram. They also made 4 pilasters out of the necessary eight (two narrow ones of 25 cm and two wider ones of 56 cm) plus the majority of the figurative sculptures and reliefs for the cornice and pilaster heads; however, they did not manage to start mounting the objects in the room.

The surprising conclusion

Immediately after taking power, Frederick the First's successor to the Prussian throne, Frederick William I, reduced all expenditures irrelevant to the economy and military power of the state. The work on the study was immediately halted and the almost-finished masterpiece was packed up and deposited in the Berlin Armoury (the Zeughaus, a building also designed by Schlüter), which would bury the amber treasure for years . Turau and Schacht had made a detailed description of the completed elements of the study before they were packed away.

The statistics are as follows:

• the area of the entire amber decoration according to A. Schlüter's design - 74.36 m 2

• including finished frames from Dresden, 3 pieces (only frames, no mirrors ) - 3.20 m 2

• area to be finished in situ - 71.16 m 2

• area of completed elements - 68.50 m 2

And so, the task to create the amber study was completed in 96.26%.

The grandest ensemble of amber compositions in the history of amber jewellery art, the first of its kind to be designed on an architectural scale, lay waste in the murky Zeughaus for 3 years. Then, like most other large amber artefacts of the time, it became a diplomatic gift.

In November 1716, the son of the study's founder, King Frederick William I, gave the study to Tsar Peter I during their meeting in Havelberg. The Tsar knew of the piece, also from the reports of Andreas Schlüter himself, who the Tsar employed at his court, but did not have the opportunity to use his talents as the artist died suddenly during a plague epidemic. This is how Peter I recounted the meeting in Havelberg in a letter to his wife Catherine:

“Our arrival here has not been futile, there are some profits. P.S. The King gave me an exquisitely furnished yacht, moored in Potsdam and the amber study, which I have craved for a long time."

he artefact travelled to St Petersburg, but it was only after fifty years that Peter's daughter, Elisabeth I, found a permanent use for it. The Tsarina's court architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli transformed the study into the Amber Room in the Tsars' Summer Palace.


Wiesław Gierłowski

Wiesław Gierłowski

Is the oldest amber maker from Gdansk and has been in profession since 1957. The expert of amber and author of many publications about amber. Awarded a distinction – the title of the Amber Maker of the Century.

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