Goldsmith’s Art

Basel’s past as an Episcopal see, city state and cantonal capital manifests itself in a rich hoard of items made of precious metal. Basel Cathedral Treasury and the silverware belonging to its 28 guild corporations held at the museum together form a treasure trove that is both sacred and secular. Supplementing the ecclesiastical items and secular silverware are the finely crafted gold artefacts of the Amerbach Cabinet and other early collections.

With its magnificent examples of Gothic gold work, Basel Cathedral Treasury is one of the highlights of the whole collection. More than half the 70 liturgical objects originally belonging to the treasury have now been reunited in the Museum of History, where they are displayed alongside Late Gothic and Baroque ecclesiastical silverware and gold-plated copperware of varying provenance, including some items from monasteries in Basel.

The collection of secular gold work, which includes the guilds’ silverware, totals some 1,000 items. About two thirds of these were made in Basel, while the others were imported from the great goldsmithing centres of southern Germany, the Upper Rhine and Switzerland; the cities of Augsburg, Nuremberg, Strasbourg and Zurich are all well represented. That so much of the secular silverware dating from the 15th to the 20th century comes from workshops in Basel attests to the importance of goldsmiths to that city, which between the first documentary mention of a goldsmith in 1267 and the present has been home to more than 720 master goldsmiths.

Disregarding the silver insignia (university sceptre, ceremonial staff and badge) exhibited together with the official and legal artefacts, the secular silverware can be divided into three groups: guild silverware, most of which dates from the 17th century, assorted drinking vessels, ornaments, toilet sets and jewellery from the 16th to the 18th century, and then the family silver of Basel’s more affluent burghers consisting of cutlery, drinking vessels, cruets, candelabra, kettles, tea pots, coffee pots and chocolate pots – all of them objects that are representative of general developments throughout the 18th century.

The third main complex, the collection of gold work, numbers some 700 items. Most of these belong to the Amerbach Cabinet and were bought en masse from the estates of deceased goldsmiths as long ago as the 16th century. Most items are samples or models whose designs and origins can be traced back to workshops in Basel, Augsburg and Nuremberg. This makes them an essential resource for anyone interested in learning more about goldsmithing in the Late Gothic and Renaissance period.

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