More than ninety extraordinary masterpieces and rare objects from the imperial collections of the Habsburgs, one of Europe’s greatest royal families. Housed today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, these spectacular treasures, most of which have never before left Austria, demonstrate the immense power and enduring legacy of this former empire.
All’antica morion of Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol, 1560
Northern Italian Artist
Blued, embossed iron, gilded and silvered, with gold damascene work
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaThe style of this helmet reflects the popularity of Greek and Roman antiquity during the Renaissance. The visage of a dragon dominates the front of the helmet, its ferocious mouth opening just above the wearer’s face. The sides are adorned with scenes of mythology, including Poseidon, god of the sea, in a carriage drawn by seahorses. Such an elaborate and decorative helmet would have been worn at festive occasions and not during battle.
Goblet with lid, so-called Herberstein Goblet, early 15th century
Base: prior to 1449; lid: 1564
Rock crystal, silver, and gold plate
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaThis precious goblet was owned by Fredrick III (1415-1493), whose personal mark (AEIOU) is inscribed beside the year 1449 on its base. The vowels AEIOU are probably an abbreviation for the first letters of the words in the Latin phrase, “It is Austria’s duty to rule the entire world.” The goblet was cut from a single piece of rock crystal. To emphasize his material’s preciousness and his own virtuosity, the carver made a 12-sided goblet. In the medieval world, the number 12 symbolized perfection.
Goblet of Rhinoceros Horn, ca. 1610–12
Attributed to Nikolaus Pfaff
German, ca. 1556 – 1612
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaDrinking from this cup would have guaranteed a happy and healthy love life. Three satyrs, mythical creatures who, being part animal and part human, could not control their sexual desires, form the base of this goblet. They morph from the zoological to the human to the botanical as their animal legs support human arms that turn into branching coral. Rhinoceros horn was thought to be an aphrodisiac (sexual stimulant) and to ward off evil and bad luck, as was coral.
Italian, 1527 – 1593
Oil on limewood
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaThis representation of Fire is literally composed of fiery objects. Flint and steel stand in for the nose and ear. An oil lamp forms the neck. Matches create a mustache, muskets and cannons compose the chest and shoulder. Someone seeing this in the 1500s would have understood the reference: Habsburg Emperor Maximilian II, for whom the painting was made, maintained control over his realm with military firepower. The collar of the Golden Fleece, and the double-headed eagle below it, refer to the emperor’s hereditary power.
Jupiter and Io, ca. 1530 – 1532
Antonio Allegri, called Correggio
Italian, 1489 – 1534
Oil on canvas
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaThis masterpiece by Correggio remains one of art history’s most daring, erotic, and shocking paintings. Correggio painted four sensuous canvases relating Jupiter’s loves. In Roman mythology, the lusty god often disguised himself so he could seduce maidens without his wife, Juno, catching on. On a sunny day, here he has become a thick black cloud. Jupiter’s face faintly appears in the blackness as he reaches his great, paw-like arm to embrace the nymph Io.
The Three Philosophers, ca. 1505
Giorgio da Castelfranco, called Giorgione
Italian, 1477 – 1510
Oil on canvas
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaHere three men of differing ages lose themselves in thought before a cave. The youngest sits with a square and compass, the oldest stands with a compass and a tablet, the man in the middle wears Oriental dress and a turban.Giorgione’s painting may or may not have a specific subject. The three figures could represent the three earliest Greek philosophers seeking to understand the principles of nature or illustrate the three ages of man. No matter what, Giorgione’s poetic manner encourages thoughtful contemplation and inventive interpretation by viewers, too.
Susanna and the Elders, ca. 1555–56
Jacopo Robusti, called Tintoretto
Italian, ca. 1518 – 19 – 1594
Oil on canvas
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaAccording to the biblical book of Daniel, one hot afternoon Susanna decided to bathe in a garden fountain. Two elderly men watched on the sly and then propositioned her. The virtuous Susanna refused them but was subsequently charged with adultery. During her trial, the elders’ treachery was revealed, and they were put to death.This poetic painting sparkles with color and light. The dramatic diagonal composition, lushness of the garden, and the imposing figure of Susanna draw us in, despite the leering presence of the peeping toms.
Christ Crowned with Thorns, ca. 1603
Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio
Italian, 1571 – 1610
Oil on canvas
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaWith violence and pathos we witness one of Christ’s last earthly sufferings. He slumps to one side as his dirty, ragged tormentors pummel him with sticks. The bright red of his cloak offers a premonition of his bloody fate on the cross, as we, along with a disturbingly disinterested soldier, watch the terrible story unfold. Caravaggio, one of the great innovators of the Italian Baroque, amplified the drama of the scene through his striking use of light and dark and strong diagonals.
Maria Theresa as a Child, ca. 1727
Danish, 1684 – ca. 1762
Oil on canvas
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaMaria Theresa was already poised and charming at age 10. To preserve Austrian Habsburg rule in the absence of male heirs, her father, Emperor Charles VI, declared that daughters of royal princes could succeed to the Habsburg throne. Here Maria Theresa poses with an archducal hat behind her right hand, indicating she is already invested with authority. Her ermine lined cape reinforces her nobility.
Gala Carriage of the Vienna court— The “Princes’ Carriage,” ca. 1750–55
Wood panels, bronze, glass, iron, velvet, silk, and gold embroidery
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaAttributed to the Imperial Saddlery
Two Sets of Harnesses from a Six-Horse Gala Team, ca. 1740–50
Leather, velvet, gilt brass, gold, and silk passementerie
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaThis fashionable gala carriage carried the imperial family’s children during formal processions in Vienna. A window was added on the back in 1896 to display the transport the Hungarian crown jewels.The lavish appliqué and gilded cast-brass buckles on these two sets of harnesses, from a required set of six, are particularly splendid. They show the coat of arms of the non-ruling members of the imperial house, the Austrian coat of arms with the archducal coronet above, and intricate scrollwork and strapwork typical of the Baroque style.
Regalia of a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, eighteenth century
Silk velvet, silk, and gold
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaSince its founding by the Duke of Burgundy in 1430, the Order of the Golden Fleece has been one of the noblest chivalric orders. It initially took its name from the ancient hero Jason and his Argonauts but also became identified with Gideon’s fleece, which marked him as leader of the Hebrew people. The order came under Habsburg auspices when Maximilian I married Mary of Burgundy in 1477. It later split—like the family—into Spanish and Austrian branches.
Black Velvet Dress Belonging to Empress Elisabeth, ca. 1860–1865, restored 1998 and 2014
In the style of Charles Frederick Worth
Velvet and silk
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaEmpress Elisabeth, better known by her nickname, Sisi, became one of the first female celebrities of the modern world. A passionate athlete and competitive horse rider, she had a fitness center set up in the imperial palace and was known for her unconventional views of court society and her vigorous fights with her mother-in-law. Incredibly slim, her “Vienna wasp waist” became the height of fashion. It was especially accentuated in a relatively unadorned but elegant day dress like this one.
Boy’s Jousting Armor of Archduke Philip I, “the Fair,” ca. 1490–95
Attributed to Lorenz Helmschmid
German, ca. 1445 – 1516
Armor: iron, brass, and leather; targe: wood, bone(?), and leather
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaThis suit of jousting armor, consisting of a metal bodice and helmet, a wooden lance, and a leather shield, was made for young Philip I, also known as “Philip the Handsome” or “the Fair.” Even young noblemen participated in jousting tournaments, a form of military training that evolved into an elite sport. Participants charged toward one another on horses, aiming their pointed lances at their opponent’s shield. Although meant to simulate combat, jousting often took place at festive social events that also included music, dancing, and grand processions.
Coral Saber (Coltellaggio) and Scabbard for Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol, 1560
Coral, gilt silver, steel, wood, and velvet
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaArchduke Ferdinand II was an avid collector of rare objects made of coral, which was believed to have mythical powers and protect against the evil eye. In this example, the spindly, bright-red branches form the handle of this coltelaggio, or large knife. Because coral was costly and brittle, weapons such as this one were purely for show and were worn with antique-style armor in festive processions. The only coral-handled sabers that have survived from the Late Renaissance all derive from Ferdinand II’s collection of wonders.
Armor for Plankengestech from the “Eagle Garniture” of Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol, 1547
Austrian, ca. 1510 – 1580
Unknown nationality, 1527-1557
Iron, brass, leather, and cloth
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaThe “Eagle Garniture” of Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol is the most extensive ensemble of armor still in existence, and the best documented. Its 87 parts may be assembled 12 different ways, depending on the use, such as equestrian or pedestrian combat or for various types of tournaments. The “Eagle Garniture” was first worn by Ferdinand II at a tournament in Prague in early 1548. Its name comes from the Austrian heraldic eagle that adorns many of its pieces.
Bust of Emperor Claudius, ca. 41 – 54
Light gray chalcedony and gold-plated silver, early 1600s
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaAs Holy Roman Emperors, the Habsburgs looked to ancient Rome for artistic inspiration and validation of their authority. They displayed Roman portrait sculptures in the grand public spaces of their palaces, often restoring ancient pieces with more modern parts, as in the case of this portrait cameo. Habsburg emperors commissioned exquisite portraits that were equally Roman looking, linking themselves visually to ancient rulers as well as claiming superiority through technically advanced marble-carving technique.
Lidded Tankard in Ivory with Bacchanalia and Mythological Scenes, 1642
Hans Jakob I. Bachmann, goldsmith
German, 1574 – 1651
Master IPG, ivory carver
Active c. 1640
Ivory and gilt silver
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaScenes of drunken revelry adorn this elaborate ivory tankard. Bacchus, god of wine, pursues a nymph while his cohort of revelers surrounds him, laughing, playing music, and harvesting grapes. At the top of the lid, a small figure of Amor, god of love, observes the path of an arrow he appears to have just shot. Such imagery is connected to the intoxicating contents the tankard was made to hold – though it’s likely it was never actually used as a drinking vessel. Instead, the magnificent ivory and gilded silver object was displayed as a symbol of the Habsburg’s wealth and refinement.
Abundantia, ca. 1635–1645
German, 1588 – 1662
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaIn this sculpture, nature transforms into a work of art. Carved from a piece of walrus tusk, this voluptuous female figure standing with a cornucopia of fruit represents Abundantia, the goddess of plenty or Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees and orchards. The natural form of the material—in particular, the ivory’s grainy structure— is incorporated into the design. This texture is especially visible on the goddess’s shoulders, arm, and left leg. This tension between art and nature was characteristic of cabinets of curiosities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Jane Seymour, ca. 1536
Hans Holbein the Younger
German, 1497 – 1543
Oil on oak
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaJane Seymour was the third and favorite wife of the English King Henry VIII—the only one of his six wives to produce a male heir who survived infancy. She died a few days after giving birth. Henry VIII likely commissioned the work for himself, but it was in the Habsburg collection by 1720. Holbein emphasized Jane’s prim piety and regal bearing. She wears a necklace with the monogram of Christ (IHS), reminding viewers that while Henry had separated England from the papacy, it was still a devout state.
Danaë, ca. 1554 – 1565
Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian, and Workshop
Italian, ca. 1488 – 1576
Oil on canvas
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaIn this sumptuous Venetian Renaissance painting, Titian, one of the great masters of that time, returned to a subject he painted many times: the myth of Danaë. According to mythology, Danaë’s father, the king of Argos, received a prophecy that his daughter’s son would one day kill him. In order to prevent Danaë from ever bearing such a child, the king locked her in a dungeon. This painting shows Danae visited by Jupiter in the form of a cloud of gold, impregnating Danae and fulfilling the prophecy. It was sent as a gift to Emperor Rudolf II in 1600.
Infanta Maria Teresa, ca. 1652–1653
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez
Spanish, 1599 – 1660
Oil on canvas
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaBefore photography and widespread travel, painted portraits of marriageable young girls were often sent to the families of potential husbands for vetting. The young Spanish infanta Maria Teresa was considered as a spouse for several Habsburgs, and multiple portraits of her, including this one, were sent to Vienna. Ultimately, she married her cousin, King Louis XIV of France.In this portrait, Maria Teresa is fashionably attired, and her expression, along with the spontaneity of the artist’s brush, projects a fresh, lively appearance.
Emperor Leopold I, 1667
Flemish, 1617 – 1678
Oil on copper
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaOn January 24, 1667, an equestrian ballet was performed on the Burgplatz in Vienna to celebrate the wedding of Emperor Leopold I and the Spanish infanta Margarita Teresa. This small painting shows Leopold in his costume for the event. The ballet told the story of a competition between the Four Elements. Air or water, aided by fire and earth—which had created the most beautiful pearl? It didn’t really matter. The point was the spectacle and that the bride was the perfect pearl. In Latin, Margarita means pearl.
Schönbrunn from the Cour d’Honneur, ca. 1759–1761
Bernardo Bellotto, known as Canaletto
Italian, 1722 – 1780
Oil on canvas
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaIn this painting, Bernardo Bellotto depicted the immense palace and courtyard of Schönbrunn, Maria Theresa’s favorite summer residence, just west of Vienna. Maria Theresa and her courtiers stand in the distance on a balcony of the left wing of the imperial palace. In the middle ground, Count Joseph Kinsky’s carriage barrels across the court, followed by his galloping entourage, bringing word of a Habsburg triumph over the Prussians. The painting carries the date August 16, 1759, when Maria Theresa received this news, not when the painting was completed.
Regalia of a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Hungarian Order of Saint Stephen, 1764
Silk velvet, silk, faux ermine, gold embroidery, and feathers
Kunsthistorisches Museum, ViennaThe colors of the vestments worn by the Royal Hungarian Order of Saint Stephen are those of Hungary: red (for the robe), green (for the cape), and white (for the faux ermine edging). All the clothes are embroidered with golden oak leaves, referencing the ancient Roman tradition of honoring extraordinary citizens with oak wreaths.The Order of Saint Stephen of Hungary was founded by Empress Maria Theresa in 1764. Unlike other orders whose members were equal peers, this order provided an opportunity for the emperor to recognize individuals of various origins and rank for their outstanding civil service.
This exhibition took viewers on a journey that explored six hundred years of art collecting by the Habsburg family, one of Europe’s most powerful and long-lived dynasties. The Habsburgs served as emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, the highest secular authority in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Centered in Vienna, Austria, their empire extended to the Americas as well.
All of the works in this exhibition came from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, built by Emperor Franz Josef to house the imperial collections. The Habsburgs commissioned and collected some of the world’s most splendid paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, arms and armor, and even ceremonial carriages, most of which had never been exhibited in North America.
Habsburg spectacle and performance were legendary. Generation after generation, Habsburg rulers bid for their subjects’ respect and loyalty—and won it—through the collection, creation, and display of spectacular architecture, sculpture, painting, and decorative arts. Today, Habsburg splendor can be experienced in the empire’s former capital cities of Vienna, Madrid, Budapest, and Prague as well as in smaller cities throughout Europe.
Spectacle was an essential part of courtly life for the Habsburgs. From the Middle Ages on, pageantry and pomp were as important as military power. Participants in jousting tournaments wore elaborate armor to impress spectators. In later centuries, nobles demonstrated their wealth and political power while parading through the imperial city in exquisite carriages and gilded sleighs.
The Habsburgs also commissioned and collected art to impress subjects and fellow aristocrats. Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosity, showcased rare specimens of natural and human production. The Habsburgs considered these collections microcosms of the world and filled them with exotic and mysterious natural objects, including the shells of ostrich eggs, animal skins and skeletons, precious gems and minerals, fossils, and even “unicorn horns” (actually narwhal tusks). By the late 1500s, the Habsburgs owned over 3,000 paintings, which they exhibited in their palaces throughout Europe.
These displays allowed for the contemplation of natural curiosities and manmade wonders but also served as a form of propaganda, demonstrating the magnificence, wealth, and power of the collectors.
The works in this exhibition come from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Opened to the public in 1891 by Emperor Franz Joseph I, the museum stands in the Ringstrasse, an elegant boulevard circling historic downtown Vienna. The Kunsthistorisches houses the Habsburgs’ splendid art collections, which they amassed over centuries of rule. Among the most important Habsburg collectors was Archduke Leopold Wilhelm (1614–1662), who published the very first printed catalogue of a painting collection. The museum also holds the armor collections of Ferdinand II of Tyrol and some of the many wonders from Rudolf II’s cabinet of curiosities.
Although the royal family lost power in 1918, the Habsburg legacy lives on today, its splendor and spectacle reminding us of the magisterial manner in which this family helped shape 650 years of European art, politics, and culture.