The Skulpturensammlung of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is bringing together a selection of its most precious wax sculptures from the 16th to 19th centuries in a small but carefully curated one-room show.
The 33 exquisite objects on display – three of them from the Münzkabinett – are mainly small-format, skilfully crafted wax portraits and portrait medallions, but there are also a small number of reliefs depicting Christian, mythological and allegorical themes on display, along with a selection of statuettes.
The smooth and malleable natural product of wax has been valued since antiquity for the diversity of its applications – with one field of use being the production of death masks used to commemorate the ancestral dead. The wax was obtained by melting honeycomb, which was then bleached using various additives, such as sodium bicarbonate
In response to the burgeoning interest in the appearance of individuals that was seen during the Renaissance, Italian medallists developed techniques of producing coloured wax portraits by mixing the wax with pigments, with which they achieved astonishingly realistic likenesses of their subjects. One of the inventors of this new genre was the northern Italian Antonio Abondio (1538–1591), who attained unparalleled mastery in this technique and lent his works an extraordinary vibrancy through the addition of pearls and precious stones, gaining access to Europe’s most important noble houses. Through these innovations, he made a significant contribution to the dissemination of this technically demanding procedure.
In contrast to large-format works, miniature portraits were intended to be viewed in intimate settings. They were popular gifts in noble and bourgeois circles, allowing the giver to establish a close personal connection with the recipient. Portrait medallions of royal rulers, on the other hand, primarily served political purposes or dynastic interests, by legitimising the claim of rulers, disseminating the image of the sovereign and ensuring that it would survive beyond their death.
Due to their extraordinary artistry, these works of art in wax were highly sought-after collector’s items that quickly found their way into the halls of European art institutions. Some of the objects shown in the exhibition come from the Brandenburg-Prussian Kunstkammer. This collection was considerably expanded in 1904 and 1918 through two donations made by Berlin’s greatest patron, the Jewish entrepreneur James Simon (1851–1932).
A special exhibition by the Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
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