Of padouk, ebony and unidentified exotic woods and engraved staghorn inlay. The sloped lid with bottom molded edge framed by arabesque garlands interspersed with exotic birds, wild boar, hares, hunters and hounds, surrounding five engraved cartouches depicting scenes from Albrecht Dürer’s Kleine Passion. The left and right sides decorated with one large engraved scene above three smaller all from the old testament by Virgil Solis surrounded by inlaid foliate rinceaux interspersed with game animals and hunters, the rearmost panel on each side containing a small fitted drawer, one of which is inlaid on all sides and can be used freestanding.  The front and back sides similarly decorated. The hinged lid opening to an interior with rectangular red-baize lined well, and two tiers of drawers along the back, three at the bottom and four above. The inner sides, back,drawer fronts and lid decorated with engraved inlaid foliate decoration surrounding cartouches after Solis depicting exotic animals, male and female busts, and hunting scenes. The box secured with a decorative engraved brass lock depicting a stag. Formerly with metal stays to support the lid.

Formerly in the collection at Burg Rheinstein, Trechtingshausen; likely acquired in the early 19th century by Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig of Prussia (1794-1863).

Heinrich Kreisel, Die Kunst Des Deutschen Möbels: Bd. 1, (München: Beck, 1974), Plate 82.

Kurzer Führer durch die Burg Rheinstein und ihre Sammlungen. Kiel: Druck von Schmidt & Klaunig, 1905. 59.

Rudolf Arthur Zichner, Burg Rheinstein Ein Führer durch die Burg mit Beschreibung ihrer Kunstwerke und Sehenswürdigkeiten. Satz und Druck: Der Rheingold-Verlag, Mainz, 1953. 28.

The present Schreibpult or scriptor is depicted in Heinrich Kreisel’s Die Kunst des deutschen Möbels, Volume 1, Pl. 182, and described as “scriptor with figural engraved ivory intarsia, Nuremberg, 3rd quarter of the 16th century, showing scenes from the Kleine Passion by Albrecht Dürer, framed by arabesque garlands interspersed with exotic birds, game animals, such as wild boar, hares, hunters and hounds.”1 The Kleine Passion, or Small Passion, was one of Dürer’s largest and most popular series, published in 1511. It comprised thirty-seven woodcuts beginning with The Fall of Man and concluding with The Last Judgement. On the present scriptor, the scenes illustrated are (clockwise from the upper left): Christ before Pilate, Christ on the Mount of Olives, Christ before Caiaphas, and Christ before Herod, with The Last Supper in the center (figure 1).

The left and right sides of the scriptor are decorated with engraved scenes from the old testament by Virgil Solis, surrounded by inlaid foliate rinceaux interspersed with game animals and hunters. The rearmost panel on each side contains a small fitted drawer. Remarkably, one of these two side opening drawers is freestanding and inlaid on all sides when removed. Its compartments indicate its original function as an encrier. The interior engraved panels of the scriptor are also decorated with engraved inlaid foliate motifs surrounding cartouches after Solis depicting exotic animals, male and female busts, and further hunting scenes.

The presentation of the animals in the decoration of the scriptor is of special significance. Animals had traditionally played a role in illuminated manuscripts, decorating bodies of text surrounded by foliage in a fashion not dissimilar to that seen in the decoration here; an evocation that is likely to have been deliberate. For centuries medieval Bestiaries, or compendiums of animals, had reflected the belief that every animal on the Earth was the creation of god and had its own significance and meaning. However it is notable that the maker of the scriptor has chosen a series of animals of the most uncommon kind, a combination of the legendry and exotic, two categories that were much the same thing in the sixteenth century.

Some of the sources for the animals have been identifiable, revealing names of leading artists who served as inspiration to craftsmen and decorators across Europe during this period. The Griffin is closely related to a design by Albrecht Dürer for a triumphal arch devised for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I of 1515 (figure 2). It shows the mythical animal striking a light with a flint and iron, which is borrowed from the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece, the most senior order of chivalry of the Holy Roman Empire.2 Although the griffin on the scriptor does not bear the flint or iron, the links with royalty and chivalry may well have been deliberate and recognizable. The stag beetle is perhaps the most famous example present, and most unsual as a subject for inlay. Named for its long mandibles resembling the antlers of a stag, the insect is illustrated in another of Dürer’s studies (1505) (figure 3), this time devoted to nature, “which enjoyed great popularity among sixteenth-century artists and patrons…and which were incorporated into compositions by artists well into the seventeenth century.”3 His original painting was a major statement of interest in nature and an avowal of all God’s creations at a time when most believed insects to be the lowest possible form of life. The iconic beetle was reproduced by artists Hans Hoffmann, working in Prague at the court of Rudolf II in 1574, and again in the later work of Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1601) on at least three occasions.4 Hoefnagel was both a print maker, making use of the new technologies available to artists of the period, as well as being one of the last illuminators of manuscripts, demonstrating how this was a period of immense change in methods of depiction.

The camel looks to have been borrowed from the illustrations of Sebastian Münster’s (1488-1522) Cosmographia (figure 4). Published in 1544, it was the first description of the world in German, and undoubtedly owed much of its success to its superb illustrations, executed by artists including Hans Holbein the Younger

The prancing unicorn is very close to an illustration in one of the most seminal early works of proto-zoology, the Historiae Animalium or Histories of the Animals by Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) (figure 5). This work straddles the ancient tradition of the medieval Bestiary, where animals were presented with symbolic attributes each with a moral lesson, and a modern work of zoological cataloging. Like the Cosmographia, its major advantage was the inclusion of illustrations, which were produced by a number of artists and scholars. As is evidenced here, many mythological creatures were included, as well as ones we would recognize today.

The elephant also appears on the scriptor. Elephants in Europe were only to be found in a few royal menageries that were open to the public, however some of these attained some fame such as Hanno, the elephant owned by Pope Leo X, who was depicted by artists including Raphael. A woodcut depiction of him from a pamphlet of 1514 bears a compelling resemblance to the elephant on the present piece (figure 6).

The animals encourage a renewed understanding of the scriptor as a Renaissance work of art, that draws on printed reproductions of the work of the period’s greatest artists, alongside groundbreaking geographical and zoological works. Such fantastic animal subjects were incorporated into pietra dura panels later on the in the seventeenth century, but appear to be unprecedented in such profusion in wood inlays at this early date.

At the time of writing the second edition of Die Kunst, published in 1974, the location given for this piece is Burg Rheinstein, Trechtingshausen, (near Frankfurt, Germany). This castle dates back to the 13th century and underwent a complete restoration after being acquired in 1823 by Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig of Prussia (1794-1863). Like his cousin, King Frederick William IV of Prussia, Friedrich was intensely interested in the Middle Ages and the castles of Rhine Province. The works were completed between 1825 and 1829, under the guidance of J. C. von Lassauxl, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and Wilhelm Kuhn, and a chapel was added in 1834. Burg Rheinstein was a favorite residence of the Prince and he hosted many important heads-of-state as guests there, including Queen Victoria of England and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia. The castle remained in the possession of the Hohenzollern family until 1975, when it was sold to the opera singer Herman Hecher.

It is likely that the Rheinstein scriptor was acquired by Prince Friedrich, who was known to have been an avid collector of art and antiques. Both he and his wife, Princess Louise of Anhalt-Bernburg, were talented artists themselves, and the Prince had been appointed Protector of the Kunstverein (art association) for Rhineland-Westphalia in 1829, following the foundation of the Academy of Arts for the Rhineland in Düsseldorf.5

The castle and its collections were open to public viewing from the moment it was completed, whenever the royal couple was not in residence.6 A guide to the Burg of 1837, entitled Erinnerungsblätter für Alle, welche die Burg besuchen (Koblenz, K. Bädecker), “containing the history, description of the castle, as well as a detailed description of the art treasures and antiques…within,”7 enumerates the present scriptor within the private apartments of the Prince next to important works by Lucas Cranach and original drawings by Albrecht Dürer as follows: “amongst the cabinet works within this chamber an old scriptor with inlaid ivory…deserve[s] particular attention.”8

The piece is also mentioned in two twentieth century guide books to the castle: The Kurzer Führer durch die Burg Rheinstein und Ihre Sammlungen (1905) states that the Burg at that date belonged to the brother of the Kaiser, and that the scriptor stood in the “living room of Prince Frederich.”9 It bore the inventory number 68 and is listed as “The small scriptor of Ebony with Ivory inlays depicts scenes from Dürer’s Kleine Passion and dates from the end of the 16th century. In the second text, Burg Rheinstein: Ein Führer durch die Burg mit Beschreibung ihrer Kunstwerke und Sehenswürdigkeiten (1953), the scriptor is again identified in the same room, which apparently contained some of the finest specimens of furniture, and is described in detail: “the Living Room [Wohnzimmer] of Prince Friedrich, is home to the most valuable pieces of the collection […a commode ] with rich and delicate ivory inlays belongs certainly amongst the best pieces produced in the 1740s. On this precious writing commode stands an equally precious box of tortoiseshell, framed in ivory and ebony… On the opposite wall stands a Dutch commode with six drawers also dating from the 18th century. This piece, too is bedecked entirely with precious ivory inlays: foliage, swags set with butterflies and birds. And while one admires this, the eye is drawn towards a […] scriptor, also of ebony and ivory, whose framework of garlands with hunters and animals surrounds five ivory images. In the central circle is the Last Supper, in the four corners, scenes from the Passion of Christ.”10 The booklet also includes an illustration of a detail from the border of the present scriptor, depicting hunters and wild game among rinceaux (figure 7).

Frederick was born in Berlin to Prince Louis Charles of Prussia and Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Although presented with an opportunity for the British crown when Princess Charlotte of Wales expressed interest in marrying him, Friedrich instead became engaged to Louise Anhalt-Bernburg. The pair wed in 1817 and had two sons, prince Alexander (b. 1820) and Prince George (b. 1826).

Prince Friedrich lived a life dedicated to military service and enjoyed a successful career. He commanded the First (Silesian) Cuirassiers, a heavy cavalry regiment for the Royal Prussian Army, from 1815 until his death 47 years later, serving as “Great Elector.” In 1820, he became Commander of the 20th Division in Düsseldorf and moved his family to Schloß Jägerhof, which, owing to his and Louise’s dedication to the arts, became central to social and cultural life. He was called to Berlin during the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states, however, Friedrich’s popularity in Düsseldorf did not wane and in 1854 he was created their first honorary citizen.

Given its date, its combination of religious imagery from Dürer with hunting scenes, and fine engraved staghorn inlay, the Rheinstein scriptor would certainly have suited the patron’s taste perfectly, whose substantial collection focused on important antiques of the 15th and 16th century. A great proportion of these, as well as some newly commissioned stained glass windows, for example, have Christian subjects, and numerous other pieces are also of engraved or carved ivory or staghorn. Hunting scenes and weaponry were also emphasized, and it is likely that craftsmen from the armory created the inlay on the present piece. As mentioned above, the foliate borders that surround the engraved plaques on the present piece are populated with numerous species of birds, game animals, dogs and hunters. Some of the larger plaques decorating the drawer fronts on the lower section are also dedicated to the theme of hunting. Such subject matter is often found on deluxe firearms of the period.

The Rheinstein scriptor is closely related to another example from Schloss Ambras, depicted in Meisterwerke Der Sammlungen Schloss Ambras (figure 8).11 A smaller and more portable example, the Ambras scriptor is richly inlaid in bone, depicting biblical and allegorical subjects. The closed lid is centered by a large circle with the Paschal lamb surrounded by the continents—Europa, America, Africa and Asia—all framed by “rollwerk,” grotesques, and trophies. Smaller circles at the corners contain pictures of the evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The sides have personifications of planet-gods Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Apollo and Venus, as well as representations of the days of the week seen in Mars, Jupiter and Luna. On the inside of the lid is a crucifixion scene, and three drawers with floral ornaments and animal motifs line the back of the open compartment. Additionally, the far side of the interior of the Ambras example bears an inscription, which explains the depiction of the wild animals: “just as the deer thirsts for fresh water, so my soul cries out to you, God” (Psalm 42). This is accompanied by a signature indicating Caspar Lickinger as artist of this work, who describes himself as Waffenmeister of Archduke Ferdinand II. He presumably perfected his skills in marquetry through his profession as Büchsenschäfter (armourer).

A further related scriptor dated 1568 is in the collection of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Schoss Pillnitz, Dresden. Curatorial opinion currently believes it to have come from Nuremberg and it has been speculated that it was made for Electoress Anna of Saxony, the wealthiest heiress in Germany in the late sixteenth century.12 It is decorated with ebony inlaid with horn, and the imagery, as on the present piece, borrows closely from both well-known contemporary religious and secular engravings. The elaborate central panel is after the Four Evangelists by Frans Floris and the surrounding figures represent the cardinal virtues and the four humors, all after Virgil Solis. The foliage decoration is closely comparable to that seen on the Rheinstein example, however the Pillnitz scriptor is smaller and its decoration simpler.

An early form of writing desk, boxes of this variety served as portable workstations, from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century, and were placed on a tabletop, or later mounted on stands. The sloped lid provided a writing surface or support for a book, and papers and writing implements were stored inside. While such scriptors could be used to store any type of document, they are sometimes referred to as “bible boxes,” and although that term that does not appear in 16th or 17th century records, the biblical imagery of the present example suggests it may well have served this purpose in the patron’s household.

*Although historical documents have described this piece as being made with “ivory,” recent FTIR (Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy) analysis performed by the Analysis Conservation department of Northumbria University in 2015 has confirmed the “bone” element to be staghorn.


  1. Heinrich Kreisel, Die Kunst Des Deutschen Möbels: Bd. 1, (München: Beck, 1974) 82.
  2. Willi Kurth, ed. The Complete Works of Albrecht Dürer, New York, 1946, p. 34
  3. Janice Neri, The Insect and the Image: Visualizing Nature in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1700, (Minneapolis [Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2011) 6.
  4. Andrea Bubenik, Reframing Albrecht Dürer: The Approbation of Art 1528-1700, Farnham 2013, page 115
  5. Margaret A. Rose, Marx’s Lost Aesthetic: Karl Marx and the Visual Arts, (Cambridge [England: Cambridge University Press, 1988) 43.
  6. Mirbach, Ernst D. Prinz Friedrich Von Preußen: Ein Wegbereiter Der Romantik Am Rhein. Ko öln [u.a.: Bo öhlau, 2006. 182.
  7. Ludwig Wilhelm Stuckert, Rheinstein : Erinnerungsblätter für Alle, welche die Burg besuchen ; Enthaltend die Geschichte und Beschreibung der Burg sowie eine genaue Beschreibung der Kunstschätze und Alterthümer, welche sie enthält, (Koblenz: Bädeker, 1837) 69.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Kurzer Führer durch die Burg Rheinstein und ihre Sammlungen. Kiel: Druck von Schmidt & Klaunig, 1905. 59.
  10. Rudolf Arthur Zichner, Burg Rheinstein Ein Führer durch die Burg mit Beschreibung ihrer Kunstwerke und Sehenswürdigkeiten. Satz und Druck: Der Rheingold-Verlag, Mainz, 1953. 28.
  11. Wilfried Seipel, Meisterwerke Der Sammlungen Schloss Ambras, (Wien: Kunsthistorisches Museum, 2008) p. 128-129
  12. John F Hayward ‘A Reading Desk by Caspar Lickinger’ in Das Obere Schwaben, Vol. 7, 1963, p. 178.

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