Amber Cabinet

WAG 2002.12


Looking at this richly glowing cabinet from around seventeen hundred it's easy to understand why amber - fossilised tree resin - was prized for the way light brings out its golden yellows and deep reds. Today modern materials like plastic produce this effect - but then amber was unique. Yellow amber turns red with age - one of the reasons amber was also prized for what were thought to be its 'magical' properties. Given its value - and rarity - the quantity of amber here is astonishing. It covers every surface, inside as well as out. Don't miss the miniature room, front centre. In the open main doors, left and right, are tiny sparkles. Pretty though these are, they're cracks. Amber is fragile - rarely found in pieces bigger than four centimetres, and difficult to carve without breaking. This cabinet was made in Danzig - modern-day Gdansk in Poland - on the Baltic Sea, where amber is mined or found on beaches. Danzig was the hub of the Amber Road, an ancient trade route running as far south as Egypt. The Danzig craftsmen also carved ivory, similar to amber in texture. The cream ivory plaques here contain flowers and cupids. And if you move to either side, you'll find in the central cameo a figure lounging in a scallop-shell with what appears to be a turtle - both symbols of the goddess Venus. The general theme seems to be love, but it's hard to tell quite what's going on. The style of the time was playful. Around the cameo, like four boiled sweets, are mysterious faces. With wild and leafy hair, beards and moustaches - or bulbous eyes and noses - are they mythological Green Man, lion or monkey? All over, if you peer carefully into some of the translucent pieces, you'll see minute pictures on a metal foil backing. This cabinet would probably have contained 'curiosities' - natural and manmade wonders from around the world. It would have been kept in a whole room of such wonders - itself known as a 'cabinet of curiosities'. Amber attracts other objects, pulled towards it by an invisible force. That force is electricity. Amber can hold a static charge. Before electricity was understood it's no surprise amber was thought to be 'magic'. The Greek for amber is 'eelektron', meaning 'made by the sun'. Have you spotted the rude joke yet? At the back, find the ivory top left. A man's emerging from the bushes. Then move to the front to see what's behind him.