The Prussian Baroque (1701-1740)

On occasion of the Prussian Sale we have divided the timespan between 1701 and 1918 into chapters, introducing their most influential players, commentators, and styles. Take a look and let us surprise you!

The Rise of the House of Brandenburg

“Suum cuique” was the motto of Prussia’s first King, Frederick I. He used it when swearing in new members to Order of the Black Eagle, an order which he himself brought into existence. “Think big – grow bigger” could have also have been his slogan. His ambition to turn the Duchy of Brandenburg into a monarchy was to permanently change the course of history in a region that other European monarchs generally regarded as a provincial backwater. His quest for territorial gains and recognition led to a cultural blossoming in the north. The universal polymath Leibniz, who was a close acquaintance of the royal couple, especially Queen Sophie-Charlotte, once wrote, “The establishment of a new Prussian Kingdom is one of the greatest achievements of our era. It is the crowning glory of the new century.” Numerous artists and architects congregated in his new residential city to realise Frederick’s dreams of grandeur. Many of his ambitious building projects leave their mark on the city’s skyline to this day: The City Palace, Zeughaus, the two cathedrals on Gendarmenmarkt, and Charlottenburg Palace. 

It were these designs that gained the city its nickname of “Athens on the Spree”. In the architect Andreas Schlüter, the King – who crowned himself in 1701 – had a partner on his side who was fully able to bring his ideas to paper and realise them in stone without attempting to moderate his lofty plans. Schlüter’s workshop produced the famous masks of dying warriors in the Zeughaus in Berlin, the Amber Room, and the sculptures in the courtyard of Berlin City Palace. The scrollwork cartouche formed as an eagle in flight is also attributed to his workshop (lot 9). The regal bird symbolised Frederick I’s aspirations and became the country’s emblem. The ancient Romans before him had also used the “King of the skies” to represent their empire’s hegemonial claims on the then known world. Frederick I wanted the representatives of his court to display his newly attained Kingship in a worthy manner. The knights of the Order of the Black Eagle dined at their annual banquets from a special porcelain service designed to accentuate pride at their rise in station (lot 6). From the palace façade to the teaspoons – every detail should reek of boundless wealth and sumptuousness. Leopold von Ranke described the Prussian court: “The officers were decked out in the old Swiss manner in white satin with golden trim. 

From the palace façade to the tea spoons – every detail should reek of boundless wealth

Everything and everyone at court, from the cloakroom to the stables, the cellars to the kitchens, bakery, and silver cabinet had to radiate abundance. Twenty-four trumpets called the diners to their midday meal: The hunt and especially the band were well-manned. The Prince happily took up the offer, suggested to him in jest, although this was never revealed to him, of accepting a handful of Moors and baptised Turks within his retinue. The gilded trimmings of the blue servants’ livery were so wide that the red satin hems were almost entirely obscured. The King himself took a keen interest in the arrangement of these things, as well as the organisation of grand feasts, and he was told that no one had a greater talent for it.”

Courtly culture clash: Thrift, drill, and discipline replace Baroque abundance

When Frederick I died in 1713 and his son Frederick William I ascended the throne, the change could not have been more jarring. Known as the “Soldier King”, Frederick William introduced a frugal and puritanical regime to the House of Hohenzollern. Aesthetic exaltations, art, and culture lost their place as transmitters of cultural values and more or less struck from the state budget, to be replaced by military drill, obedience, and discipline. Academies were closed and bronze sculptures melted down to make new cannons. Frederick William I even went as far as to exchange the famous Amber Room, created for his father by Andreas Schlüter, for a corps of soldiers from the Russian Tsar Peter the Great for his “Potsdam Giants” regiment. The military was given priority over everything else, those attributes that served it became the foundation upon which Prussian society was built. Punctuality, uniformity, and loyalty now became the keys to success. Ironically, the Soldier King never actually led his forces into battle, except for one exception. War cost too much money and decimated his beloved and carefully assembled army. This granted the country an unusually long period of peace which allowed its finances and population time to recover. His other accomplishments included the introduction of compulsory schooling, which helped to combat rampant an-alphabetism. 

He was also responsible for a clever immigration strategy that allowed him to repopulate lands in eastern Prussia, which had been depopulated by the plague. His strategy included the re-settlement of Protestants who were expelled from the Arch-Bishopric of Salzburg in 1731. Their struggles are depicted in idealised form in a commemorative medallion telling the story from their expulsion to their arrival in the God-given lands in the north (lot 13). In this, he followed in the footsteps of his Grandfather, the great Prince-Elector. Frederick William reacted to Louis XIV’s abolition of religious liberty in 1685 by passing the Potsdam Edict of Tolerance. The influx of Hugenot migrants which this encouraged led to a significant transfer of knowledge resulting in an economic boom. One example of this was a patent for the development of tapestry production granted by the regent on 7th November 1686 to the tapestry maker Pierre Mercier I. His nephew Jan Barraband II took over the running of his manufactory in the second generation, and it is from this successful workshop that our example of his famous Chinoiserie series originates (lot 12). 

The High Order of the Black Eagle of the Kingdom of Prussia

(Michael Autengruber)

On the eve of his coronation on 18th January 1701, King Frederick I (1657–1713, Frederick III Prince Elector of Brandenburg since 1688, King in Prussia since 1701) established the 1st class order for civil and military service as the highest honour that could be bestowed in his new kingdom. The first 19 knights of the Order included four princes of the royal house and many of the most important civil and military personalities in Brandenburg-Prussia. These worthies received the Order that very day in Königsburg in a solemn ceremony in which the King himself placed the golden collar with the enamelled gold cross around their necks. 

For everyday usage, the star of the Order – known as the “Kleinod”, or jewel – was worn on a golden yellow sash draped from the left shoulder to the right hip and an embroidered, later metal, eight-pointed star was worn on the left breast. Until the end of the monarchy, members of the Order also wore long red coats with an embroidered star on the left breast during the Order’s formal ceremonies. 

As the highest Prussian order, the Black Eagle was well respected throughout Europe until the dissolution of the monarchy in 1918. For all intents and purposes, the Black Eagle Order also became the highest order within the German state upon the founding of the German Empire on 1st January 1871. Although it remained a Prussian Order by law, the 1871 Imperial Constitution stated that the award of orders and marks of distinction was to remain the prerogative of the regional princes. 

Up until the 22nd October 1918, a total of 1,328 knights were awarded the Order. There were representatives from Prussia, the German states, Europe, and abroad, and they included sovereigns, princes, presidents, ministers, civil servants, ambassadors, military governors, scientists, bishops, and Evangelical clerics. 

After the proclamation of the Republic by Philipp Scheidemann (1865–1939) on 9th November 1918 and the abdication of the German Emperor King William II (1859–1941, reg. since 1888) on 29th November 1918, the Order ceased to exist as a state accolade. This was confirmed by the prohibition of Orders in article 109 of the Weimar Republic’s constitution, formulated on 31st July 1919. However, it continues to live on into the present day as the House Order of the Prussian (Hohenzollern) Family.

Limitless Xenophilia

After the Thirty Years’ War, Prince-Elector Frederick William implemented a targeted immigration policy to repopulate the decimated Margraviate of Brandenburg with Dutch settlers and artisans. With the Edict of Potsdam of 1685, the Elector also hoped to attract Hugenots, who had been expelled from France. This wealthy and educated minority were free to choose between a number of states as possible new homes. Around 10% of them – circa 20,000 people – decided upon Brandenburg. 

Frederick William also invited Protestants expelled from the Archbishopric of Salzburg to begin a new life in Prussia. He promised them “in establishing yourselves in Prussia you will be granted the same freedoms, privileges, rights, and justice as the other colonists”. The King also provided support and a daily allowance for the around 20,000 new citizens on their difficult journey. Many of them settled in Eastern Prussia, where the plague had depopulated vast swathes of the country. 

The catalogue of the 1981 exhibition “Preußen – Versuch einer Bilanz” reads: “The Prussian population policy was not restricted to the assimilation of religious minorities. The settlement of colonists drawn by the promise of economic security in the country led to an even greater increase in Prussian subjects. Economic and political advantages such as the use of agricultural land, increase in industry, fresh recruits for the army, and increased tax income certainly played a role.” (p. 227). 

The Prussian “open arm policy” described by Sebastian Haffner may have been a virtue born of necessity. The medallions commemorating the Salzburg exiles probably struck a chord with many other Prussian citizens who had found a home in the liberal and tolerant state. These included Mennonites, Presbyterians, Waldensians, and even Catholics from Evangelical states without freedom of confession. 

Frederick William I had high expectations of his church: Of 100 priests he found “20 to be good and 24 mediocre”. In his aegis of 1717 he introduced a mandatory 2 years education for candidates for the priesthood and examination regulations for priests were introduced later in 1718.