Amber court box and board
with complete set of amber chessmen
Michel Redlin (verified from 1688)
North-east German, Danzig, ca 1700
Amber, transparent and cloudy, in part carved and engraved, backed with silver foil, wooden carcass, brass fittings, drawer lined with blue silk, underside with Augsburg brocade paper.
Chessboard: 37 x 37 x 11 cm
Chessmen: king height 7 cm, pawn height 5.5 cm
Published in: Laue, G.: Tresor. Treasures for European Kunstkammer, Munich 2017, p. 67, Fig. 43; Laue, G.: The Kunstkammer. Wonders are Collectable. Kunstkammer Edition, Vol. 1, Munich 2016, pp. 52-53, p. 116, Cat. No. 27, Fig. 35
This magnificent amber box and board with chessmen is one of the most impressive amber art works dating from about 1700 in existence. The square carcass of the box, which is covered on all sides with amber panels of varying size and colour in brilliantly coloured marquetry, stands on four feet in the form of lions couchant. The edges are decorated with flat-cut pieces of cloudy amber as well as oval and lozenge-shaped transparent amber cabochons, which are backed with gold foil and enlivened with hollow-cut engraving. On the chessboard square fields of dark red, transparent amber alternate with fields of yellowish cloudy amber. The artist also used these two types of amber to distinguish the two sets of chessmen by colour. Usually they would be black and white but here they are designed in red and yellow. Harbour scenes, genre scenes, emblematic representations and all sorts of animals such as stags, hares and unicorns are depicted on the dark red cabochons and board fields. Small amber vases of fruit rise from the corners of the chessboard, emphasising the ceremonial appearance of the box. Two drawers at the sides of the box house the complete set of thirty-two chessmen, one drawer for each colour. The drawers pull out to reveal kings, queens, bishops, rooks, knights and pawns, each piece lying in one of sixteen compartments lined with blue silk.
Comparable amber chess sets are extremely rare and the few that are extant have survived, as might be expected, primarily in public museums of princely origin: in the Green Vault in Dresden from the collection amassed by Friedrich August I of Saxony (r. 1696-1733); in the State Hermitage in Saint Petersburg from the collection of Catherine II of Russia (r. 1762-1796) and at Rosenborg Palace in Copenhagen from the Royal Danish Treasury. The Copenhagen amber chess set is remarkable in that it is largely identical to the present object in form, decoration and the design of the chessmen.
Attribution of the present amber box and chess pieces to the Danzig artist in amber Michel Redlin is based on a comparison with several boxes by that master, two of which are in the Green Vault in Dresden and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, respectively. The overall appearance of the latter is not only comparable to the present box and chess pieces but it also boasts a lion finial, which is in the same pose as the lions that serve as the feet of the present box while its curled mane is even similar in style to the manes of the lion feet. Michel Redlin is recorded for the year 1688 as an artist in amber working in Danzig: at that time Friedrich III, Elector of Brandenburg (r. 1688-1713, from 1701 on Friedrich I of Prussia), acquired several amber art works from the artist to send them as diplomatic presents to the Russian court. Among them was a games box, which has been lost, but nonetheless drawings of it have survived in the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz [Secret State Archives Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation] in Berlin.
Apart from the exquisite workmanship and quality as art of this amber box with chessmen, its provenance is also remarkable: until only a few years ago it was still in the possession of the Dukes of Atholl at Blair Castle in Scotland. A letter sent by Lord George Murray (1694-1760) in the Blair Castle archives verifies that the Scottish nobleman acquired this exquisite work of art in 1758 while he was in exile in Amsterdam and sent it to Atholl as a present for his son, John Murray (1660-1724).