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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: November 2020

9 - Religious Materiality in the Kunstkammer of Rudolf II



Looking closely at objects in Rudolf II's Kunstkammer in Prague (1577–1612) reveals the complex interactions between religion and the natural world. The coconut shell, rhinoceros horn and bezoar stone that made up a liturgical cup in the collection were thought to protect against poisonous liquids and its inscription with a psalm drew attention to the notion of ‘thirsting’ for God. Text or images could make references to religion, but sometimes beliefs were lodged within the material. Similarly, precious stones were considered to represent divine power. This chapter examines these meanings of materiality in so-called ‘religious objects’ at the Habsburg court.

Keywords: Prague; natural philosophy; Kunstkammer; collections; religion; material Culture

This chapter examines objects for what they can reveal about early modern religion. It does so in an unexpected context: the early modern Kunstkammer was a setting normally considered as a space of art and science, not one designed for devotion. It provides a unique perspective on religious materiality. Looking at the collection of Rudolf II as a whole and focusing on two individual artefacts kept within it, this chapter examines how religious meaning was transformed during an object's life, through the processes of its creation, adaptation and collection. In doing so, it reveals how religious materiality was affected and thought about in ways which were specific to the early modern period. It considers how natural philosophy connected matter to the divine, and it shows how global trade contributed to an ever-diversifying religious material culture.

Located in Prague's castle district, on top of the hill above the Vltava river, protected from floods by its position, and closed from public view, was the most extensive Kunstkammer collection of the early modern period. From 1577 to 1612, the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612) assembled a vast collection of objects, art, materials, animals and instruments. Karel van Mander, a Dutch painter and art historian, wrote in 1604 that one ‘has only to go to Prague […] to the greatest art patron in the world at the present time, the Roman Emperor Rudolf the Second; there he may see[…] a remarkable number of outstanding and precious, curious, unusual and priceless works’.

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