Turners of the Early Modern Period in Saxony

Saxony (Eastern Germany)

Portrait of Augustus, Elector of Saxony, by Lucas Cranach the Younger
Three turned pieces attributed to Augustus I (Courtesy Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden)

Augustus ruled from 1553 to 1586. Much of his time was devoted to extending his territories. But he was also famous for his various museum collections, including the finest collection of arms and weapons in Northern Europe, paintings and an extensive collection of tools.

In 1560 he founded the Dresden Kunstkammer (literally “art chamber”) in the Dresden Castle, which was the predecessor of the present-day Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Dresden State Art Museum) collections. One of his possessions, a clockwork automaton called the Mechanical Galleon is now in the British Museum. This table decoration played music, told the time and showed Augustus and the other six electors parading before the Roman Emperor.

A posthumous inventory in 1587 lists a substantial set of Platonic solids made from wood by Abraham Reise, likely used as prototypes for models in ivory. This era was particularly fascinated with new forms of geometry and polyhedra and the ability to precisely create them in 3-dimensions using new-found capabilities of the ornamental lathe.

Augustus was known to have turned 135 ivory objects, some of which survive today at Grünes Gewölbe museum in Dresden.

Portrait of Christian I, Elector of Saxony

Christian I, second surviving son of Augustus, was known to particularly like the art of turning and was instructed by Egidius Lobenigk, the appointed court turner.

During his relatively short five year reign, Christian proved himself a distinguished collector and often gave commissions to court artists. Twenty one pieces by Lobenigk dating from 1588 to 1591 are listed in the 1595 inventory of Christian I.

Ivory turning by George Wecker, 1586.

Georg Wecker (Weckhardt, Weick Hardt) was son of the Bavarian court turner Hans Wecker and came to Saxony in 1576. Wecker worked at the Dresden court for Prince Elector Augustus, overlapping with Egidius Lobenigk, and helped make the court a strong center for the art of turning. He produced 76 pieces of work between 1588 and 1591.

Wecker traveled to Prague in 1599 where he helped outfit the turning chamber in the castle of Rudolf II of Austria. He produced various complex goblets and polyhedron while working there. His son Hans (as his father was also named) also became court turner to Rudolf II.

Photo details: High cover cup topped by two smaller cups (53 cm). George Wecker, 1586. (Courtesy of Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden)

Two polyhedrons: (left) Egidius Lobenigk (1581) and (right) Georg Wecker (1584), courtesy Grünes Gewölbe Museum

Lobenigk, a native of Cologne, was called by Elector Augustus to become the court turner of Dresden from 1584 to 1591, overlapping with court turner George Wecker.

Lobenigk produced at least 40 works, often topped with hollow polyhedron or hollow spheres. An oval lidded goblet dated 1586 is currently housed in the Dresden State Art Collection. An early hollow sphere with concentric nested spheres from 1581/1584 is also preserved at Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden. Other works by Lobenigk can be seen at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

"Pharmacy" box by Hans Wecker, 1610
Disassembled box containing miniature "pharmacy" by Hans Wecker, 1610

Hans was the son of Dresden court turner Georg Wecker. In 1599, Rudolf II of Austria had a turning chamber furnished in his castle in Prague by Georg Wecker. Hans also became a court turner there soon after.

Numerous turned ivory pieces are mentioned in the inventory of Emperor Rudolf's art cabinet, dating from 1607-1611. They include a box serving as a "pharmacy" by his turner Hans Wecker, made in 1610 and still in existence.

An inventory of the art cabinet taken in 1621 notes 82 pieces of turned ivory on an upper shelf and 36 ivory vessels on a lower shelf. It is likely some of these were made by Hans Wecker.

Pankraz worked as a turner at the Saxon court in Dresden from 1583. His son Jakob succeeded him (see below).
"Pharmacy" box by Jakob Zeller, 1619-1620
Disassembled box containing multiple tiers by Jakob Zeller, 1619-1620

Jakob Zeller worked with Wecker and was appointed court turner and teacher of the art of turning to Christian II, Elector of Saxony in 1610, and also to his successor John-George I.

Zeller created at least 23 turned and carved works. Among numerous ivory pieces that he created for the royal art collection, he produced 22 ceremonial goblets between 1613 and 1618. Several of these survive in museums today, including the Green Vault in Dresden.

Photo details: The vessel described in the inventory of the Dresden Kunstkammer from 1640 as "Balsambüchse" was listed among the pieces that the Dresden court turner Jakob Zeller and his journeyman made. Inside the box are five round trays, each with a center hole, which are provided with a total of 84 numbered troughs of different sizes and arranged one above the other. A cylindrical sleeve attached to the bottom serves as a container for a small spatula and at the same time carries the stackable discs. A flat cover and a crowning piece in the form of a two-part hollowed sphere is connected to the middle sleeve by a screw connection, forming the top. Only when the vessel, which looks rather unassuming and simple from the outside, is dismantled does its purpose come to light. Although it shows no signs of use, the container could have been used to store aromatic balms, which have been produced and sold in pharmacies since the 16th century. (Courtesy Grünes Gewölbe)

Friedel created elaborate ivory goblets. He may have worked with Georg Wecker. Two of his pieces are housed in the Green Vault in Dresden.

Photo details: High column (50.3cm) by George Friedel, circa 1611-1619. (Courtesy of Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.)

Portrait of Christian II

Christian succeeded his father Christian I as Elector of Saxony in 1591 at the age of eight. Because of his youth, Duke Frederick Wilhelm I of Saxe-Weimar assumed the regency of the Electorate until 1601 when Christian was declared an adult and began to govern.

In 1610, the year before his death, he appointed Jakob Zeller court turner.

Portrait of John George I, 1613

John George was given the Electorate of Saxony in 1611 on the death of his elder brother, Christian II. His court turner was Jakob Zeller, appointed by his brother a year earlier.

Portrait of Johann Casimir, Duke of Saxe-Coburg

During a complicated upbringing in which his father lost his dominions and freedom, Johann Casimir and his younger brother Johann Ernst moved several times and were brought up by various guardians including the enemy of his father, Augustus, Elector of Saxony, who supervised the education of John Casimir as well as the regency of the new Principality in Coburg. After Augustus death in 1586, Johann Casimir and his brother began governing. In 1596 they divided their Principality in two and Johan Casimir was given the reign of Coburg, where he also lived.

One of the "Coburg Ivories" that went missing was held in a private collection until 1990: Covered Standing Cup, 1631, by Marcus Heiden (Courtesy The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Under his rule, the town of Coburg prospered, improvements were made to the fortress and many Renaissance buildings built that still remain today. Duke Johann Casimir hired Marcus Heiden at the court in Coburg from 1618 to 1633, where he created many of the turned works now called the "Coburg Ivories." Johann Eisenberg was also brought to the court and worked with Heiden in creating many of the turned ivory works. Casimir himself also turned ivory and an inscription on one of Marcus Heiden's pieces signed and dated 1623-1624 (Gedeck's Cup) stated that Duke Johann Casimir also contributed. Also, an ivory goblet of Johann Casimir dated 1628 survives..

Duke Casimir managed to remain neutral in the Thirty Years War until 1631. After he joined the Protestant side under Sweden, Imperial and Bavarian troops besieged Coburg for seven days in 1632. It was at this time Mattia de' Medici took 32 "Coburg Ivories" as spoils of war and brought them to his brother Ferdinando II de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. (Only 27 of these pieces entered the collection of Ferdinando, as five went missing.) In 1635, after a renewed siege of five months' duration, the Coburg Fortress was handed over to the Imperials under Guillaume de Lamboy.

The former collections of the Dukes of Coburg are stored and presented on the castle grounds of the Veste Coburg (Coburg Fortress), one of the most well-preserved medieval fortresses of Germany.

Portrait of Johann Ernst, Duke of Saxe-Eisenach

During a complicated upbringing in which his father lost his dominions and freedom, Johann Ernst and his older brother Johann Casimir moved several times and were brought up by various guardians including the enemy of his father, Augustus, Elector of Saxony, who supervised the education of John Casimir as well as the regency of the new Principality in Coburg. After Augustus death in 1586, Johann Enrst and his brother began governing. In 1596 they divided their Principality in two and Johan Ernst was given the reign of Saxe-Eisenach.

When in 1633 Duke John Casimir died without issue, the Wettin line in Saxe-Coburg died out and John Ernest inherited it becoming Duke of Saxe-Coburg as well. It was at this time court turner Marcus Heiden (who was at the Coburg court) went to work for Johann Ernst where he continued until the Duke died in 1638.

Coburg ivories at Palazzo Pitti. Photo by J. Salesin

Heiden worked for Saxon Duke Johann Casimir at the court in Coburg from 1618 to 1633. He created many of the turned works now called the "Coburg Ivories." which take their name from the events in 1632, when the town of Coburg was pillaged and more than 30 delicate turned ivory goblets were brought to Florence as spoils of war.

Despite Heiden's fears, it was reported that almost all the turned works survived the forced seizure. They can now be seen at Museo degli Argenti in Palazzo Pitti (Florence), with a few others at the Kunstkammer in Vienna, Grünes Gewölbe in Dresden, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Weimar Castle Museum in Germany.

Elaborate ivory goblet by Marcus Heiden, 1638

Following this, Heiden went to Eisenach to the court of the Duke's brother, Duke Johann Ernst. When Ernst died in 1638, Heiden went to Weimar to work as court turner for Wilhelm IV Duke of Saxe-Weimar who died in 1662. Heiden was active at least until 1664.

After the loss of so much work, Heiden decided to make one piece that would serve as an example. This was produced between 1637 and 1638 during which time he also wrote a small book, Beschreibung Eines Von Helfenbein Gedrehten Kunststicks, printed in Coburg in 1640 and dedicated to Wilhelm IV Duke of Saxe-Weimar. In his book, he explains the creation of this elaborate ivory goblet followed by a description and meaning of the work with numerous biblical quotations and describes himself as a simple, religious man. At the end of the book, two of his friends, a rector and a pastor, confirm Heiden's great devoutness and his skill as a lathe-turner. A copy of this book is said to be in the regional library of Coburg.

Photo details: Heiden described his masterpiece as a drinking goblet poised on an elephant. This goblet is topped with a ship at full sail. Heiden mentions that the tusk used for this goblet was abnormally big and weighty, and that it was chosen from 300,000 tusks.

Johann Eisenberg, Vaso tornito, 1628, ivory, 54.5 cm high, Firenze, Museo degli Argenti

Eisenberg was probably born in Gotha around the year 1600. He worked for Saxon Duke Johann Casimir at the court in Coburg and was initially a pupil of Marcus Heiden. It is reported that Eisenberg was also active in Florence.

He created many turned ivory works, often referred to as the "The Coburg Ivories" typically dated between 1618-1631 and on display in Florence at the Museo degli Argenti in Palazzo Pitti. His work is also shown at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Green Vault in Dresden.

In their general form, almost all of the Coburg ivories by Heiden and Eisenberg are covered goblet designs. This style of vase was popular in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Turned ivory box with wheel-shaped lid, 1649. An inscription on this box may indicate the work of William IV.

Wilhelm learned the art of turning as a child. He was well-schooled and studied at the University of Jena. Later, he accompanied his brothers in their studies abroad, visiting France, Great Britain and the Netherlands from 1613 to 1614.

Wilhelm assumed the title Duke of Saxe-Weimar when his older brother Johann Ernst died in 1638. Court turner Marcus Heiden, who was working for Ernst, then went to Weimar to work as court turner for Wilhelm.

Also of interest, Wilhelm wrote the words for the famous hymn "Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend" in 1648.

Ivory boxes from late 17th century Germany, similar to those of Matthias Drejer. (Courtesy Christies

Several turned ivory boxes dated 1670/1673 by Drejer survive in Copenhagen (Museum of Design) and Munich museums.

Covered ivory tankard by Elector Daniel Vading, 1669. (H. 13.5cm, Dia. 10cm)

Vading was employed by the court of Berlin in 1669 through 1696. An ivory tankard preserved in Munich is perhaps the only surviving work of Vading. It was made in 1669 for the wedding of Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg (1620-1688) to his second spouse.

Transparent dark gold ruby glass goblet with lid, 1725-1735

Gold-ruby glass was developed under the patronage of Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, at the elector’s glassworks in Potsdam. Alchemist and glassmaker Johann Kunckel was the first alchemist to fashion a vessel from the captivating recipe. The Electors of Brandenburg became famous for their turned amber although few examples remain. A covered goblet from 1725-1735 can be seen at the Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY.

An ivory objet d'art with the medallion of Frederick I still exists and was presumably turned in the first decade of the 18th century.


How much useful knowledge is lost by the scattered forms in which it is ushered into the world! How many solitary students spend half their lives in making discoveries which have been perfected a century before their time, for want of a condensed exhibition of what is known!

Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707 - 1788)