The nexus between prehistoric artifacts and Cabinets of Wonder (Wunderkammern)

3[Wonder]: 1.Something or someone that is very surprising, beautiful, amazing, etc. a feeling caused by seeing something that is very surprising, beautiful, amazing, etc. Something that is surprising or hard to believe. 2. An event inexplicable by the laws of nature; a miracle.

[Curiosity]: is a basic human quality. It has been described as a hunger for knowledge, the pursuit of the unknown for the intellectual and emotional pleasure that arises from integrative thinking. The focus of curiosity is the boundary between the familiar and the unfamiliar, a frontier delineated by fundamental human cultural and cognitive processes. Culture is a major influence in defining the landscape of the familiar.

The currency of universities and academies is knowledge. A knowledge that is closely related to reason, proof and the elimination of uncertainty and doubt. However, during the Renaissance, knowledge was not assumed to be free of uncertainty. The time of the Renaissance was the Age of Exploration, a period of rapidly expanding horizons of knowledge and the constant attempt to achieve the seemingly unachievable. “And if there ever was an age when one sees varied and wondrous things I believe that ours is one, for it is an age in which, more than any other, things happen that are worthy of astonishment, compassion, and reproach,” observed Matteo Bandello (1485–1561) in his preface to volume 3 of the Novelle (1554).

2The Kunstkammer was undoubtedly a typical product of this time, a manifestation of the thirst for humanist learning. In his essay “On Experience,” Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) reflects: “For in my opinion, the most ordinary things, the most common and familiar, if we could see them in their true light, would turn out to be the grandest miracles of nature and the most marvelous examples, especially as regards the subject of the action of men.” Indeed, was defined primarily in its didactic sense, as a form of learning – an intermediate, highly particular state akin to a sort of suspension of the mind between ignorance and enlightenment that marks the end of unknowing and the beginning of knowing.

The initial embrace of uncertainty and the subsequent loss of wonder can be traced in the story of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European Wunderkammern (also known as Kunstkabinett, Kunstkammer, Cabinets of Wonder, Cabinets of curiosities, and wonder-rooms). The early chambers of wonder later evolved into the elaborate, excessive curiosity cabinets, which in turn laid the ground for the birth of the Encyclopedia. These Wunderkammern were the microcosms of the universe. They comprised astonishingly eclectic assemblages of natural wonders (naturalia), scientific instruments (scientifica), precious art works opium(artificialia), ethnography (exotica) and inexplicable, miraculous objects (mirabilia) that represented their creators’ interest in understanding and ordering a fast-expanding world. Such cabinets express an appreciation for keeping, collecting, and assembling things with the aim of creating wonder and emotion and surprise. It was the sense of wonder that the old cabinets of curiosities once aroused that encourages curiosity about the world.

1Cabinets of curiosities were encyclopedic collections of objects whose categorical boundaries were, in Renaissance Europe, yet to be defined. Modern terminology would categorize the objects included as belonging to natural history, geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art (including cabinet paintings), and antiquities. The Kunstkammer was regarded as a microcosm or theater of the world, and a memory theater. The Kunstkammer conveyed symbolically the patron’s control of the world through its indoor, microscopic reproduction. Besides the most famous, best documented cabinets of rulers and aristocrats, members of the merchant class and early practitioners of science in Europe formed collections that were precursors to museums.

The term cabinet originally described a room rather than a piece of furniture. The classic cabinet of curiosities emerged in the sixteenth century, although more rudimentary collections had existed earlier.

The Kunstkammer of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (ruled 1576–1612), housed in the Hradschin at Prague was unrivalled north of the Alps; it provided a solace and retreat for contemplation that also served to demonstrate his imperial magnificence and power in symbolic arrangement of their display, ceremoniously presented to visiting diplomats and magnates.  Rudolf’s uncle, Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria also had a collection, with a special emphasis on paintings of people with interesting deformities, which remains largely intact as the Chamber of Art and Curiosities at Ambras Castle in Austria.

4Two of the most famously described 17th century cabinets were those of Ole Worm, 1588–1654), and Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680). These seventeenth-century cabinets were filled with preserved animals, horns, tusks, skeletons, minerals, “ceraunea”  and other archaeological objects as well as other interesting man-made objects: sculptures wondrously old, wondrously fine or wondrously small; clockwork automata; ethnographic specimens from exotic locations. Often they would contain a mix of fact and fiction, including apparently mythical creatures. Worm’s collection contained, for example, what he thought was a Scythian Lamb, a woolly fern thought to be a plant/sheep fabulous creature. However he was also responsible for identifying the narwhal’s tusk as coming from a whale rather than a unicorn, as most owners of these believed. The specimens displayed were often collected during exploring expeditions and trading voyages.

Cabinets of curiosities would often serve scientific advancement when images of their contents were published. The catalog of Worm’s collection, published as the Museum Wormianum (1655), used the collection of artifacts as a starting point for Worm’s speculations on philosophy, science, natural history, and more. The juxtaposition of such disparate objects, according to Horst Bredekamps analysis (Bredekamp 1995) encouraged comparisons, finding analogies and parallels and 3favored the cultural change from a world viewed as static to a dynamic view of endlessly transforming natural history and a historical perspective that led in the seventeenth century to the germs of a scientific view of reality.

During the end of the 18th century the first specialized museums were installed. They had a different, more “objective” and “scientific” approach to the display of objects, based on classification, which would consign the heady delights of the Wunderkammern to history. The nineteenth century was to see the great age of the public museum, whose aim was to lift the toiling masses from their ignorance and lead them into the light of Knowledge and Truth. In these buildings, there was no place for miracles and wonders any more.

The revival of the Wunderkammer, came like so many intellectual stimuli during the 20th century, from the field of art: The surrealist André Breton hoarded an impressive cabinet of curiosities in his atelier in the rue Fontaine. After his death, his collection was auctioned off at the Hotel Drouot-Richelieu in Paris: 4100 lots!- among them:  Books, include some dedicated to Breton by Freud, Trotsky and Apollinaire as well as art catalogs and journals. A whole wall of objects and paintings by Miró, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Picasso, Arp, Victor Brauner, André Masson, Gorky and Picabia. The wall’s shelves were crowded with dozens of Oceanic sculptures as well as Inuit objects and pre-Hispanic figures from Mexico. He had a very large collection of ethnologic and “naive“ art. The sale was also replete with simple and found objects that Breton bought at auctions and flea markets or simply found while out strolling.

Yet now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the cabinet of curiosities is suddenly a hot topic again. Once the concern only of scholars and art-historians, the Kunstkammer has, since the Surrealists, undergone an astonishing revival as an object of contemporaneous art, but–this is another chapter dealing with things beyond this blog. Modern Prehistoric Science has something to learn from the Mentalities of the early Humanists: The ability to feel the surprising, beautiful and amazing behind the pure measurable facts and behind the artifacts.

[All pictures are part of JL Katzmans Wunderkammer]

Homepages of some Wunderkammern in central Europe:


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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome!

About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University.

Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.

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