The Green Vault, a museum in Dresden, houses what must be the finest set of miner’s tools ever made. Silver leaves swirl across the ax blade and the handle is studded with precious stones. The leather suet bag gleams with blue enamel and sapphires, and even the knee pads are adorned with embossed gold plaques.
Of course, no miner has ever used these lavishly impractical tools. They were props: the prince-elector of Saxony, Johann Georg II, wore them through the streets of Dresden during the 1678 festivities, dressed to match miner’s clothes. Before him, the god Mercury rode atop a massive mountain-like chariot, which was riddled with tunnels filled with hard-working miners. Smelters paraded behind them, and coiners tossed silver coins into the crowd.
Why would a prince cosplay as a minor? A prince’s treasury cannot exist without someone doing the backbreaking work of smashing their raw materials from rocks, but these characters are rarely placed side by side so explicitly, let alone confused.
Yet the 1678 festivities were far from the only times Saxon nobles embellished the dirty and dangerous work of the mines with gold and glitter. In 1591, Elector Christian I of Saxony paraded through the streets of Dresden in miner’s attire, followed by attendants carrying palettes full of uncut diamonds. In 1719, the court held a banquet in a hollow mountain. The tables were set with miniature sugar mountains, adorned with miniature miners and machinery.
The candy mountains were confectionery versions of one of Saxony’s most distinctive art forms: the Handsteine. These large chunks of ore were placed on pedestals and designed to look like busy mining sites, teeming with tiny figures and delicate models of mining machinery. Imagine all the kitsch of a toy Christmas village, decorated with gold and silver. Shimmers of precious metals or raw gemstones sparkle within the dark matrix of the substrate. Dark hollows in the stone evoke deep underground tunnels, and clusters of quartz gleam from the ground like piles of snow.
Here and there, tiny enamel characters are busy: swinging axes, winch handles, wheelbarrow carts full of ore. Intricate silver instruments stand on the slopes of twisted stone; in one, the brutal efficiency of a Newcomen engine (state-of-the-art at the time) is rendered with the delicacy of a snowflake clockwork. Others are surmounted by biblical scenes: David and Bathsheba, Christ on the cross, the Resurrection.
The royal obsession with mining began in 1470 with the discovery of silver in the Ore Mountains. The silver boom was accentuated by concurrent technological advancements that made deeper mining attractive. As the Ore Mountains deepened, mountain towns sprang up with each new discovery of a rich vein. A word was coined to describe the breathless excitement of the time: ‘Bergeschrey’, or ‘the clamor of the mountains’.
Miners developed an intuitive sense of how the ore traveled through the earth. They took handfuls of earth and mixed them with rainwater and tasted them; they came to know how different ores smelled, smelled and sounded when cracked between the teeth. At the time, metals were believed to grow underground like plants, unfurling tendrils and gradually maturing into more and more perfected forms. In his 1540 text on metallurgy, Of the pyrotechnicsVannoccio Biringuccio described the ore growing in the earth:
From its main trunk extend various branches, some thick, others slender, just like the real trees of mature forests. They believe that these continually grow and expand and pull themselves skywards, always transforming into their own nature the most disposed adjacent materials, so that at last the spikes arrive at the top of the mountain and emerge with a sign clear, sending, instead of leaves and flowers, blue or green fumes…
When miners found bismuth or antimony, they thought they had arrived too soon, before the metal could become something more valuable.
Life in the mines was bustling, dangerous and haunted. Workers complain of underground demons: kobolds that look like little old men, who run through the tunnels laughing and throwing rocks. As Georgius Agricola recounts the antics of these demons in his Metallurgy Dialogue:
Some of them do no harm to minors, they just walk around the galleries, and they look like they’re working. Sometimes they dig a gallery, sometimes they fill carriers with extracted materials, sometimes they move the lifting gear, sometimes they tease the workers. They do this preferably in mines where rich ores are to be extracted or where there is at least the hope of finding a lot of silver. Others, on the other hand, are actually the most harmful, like the mining spirit that violently attacked the miners in the pit called Rosenkranz [Rosary] in Annaberg several years ago, where twelve of them died. Many people know this story and they left the pit despite being rich.
Then there was the wild man, a creature shaped like a human, but covered in matted hair, who was said to guard the rich veins of the earth. From a menacing figure, the Wild Man has become a sort of mascot for the mines, lending his name to towns and mines, and his image to the silver coins minted from the ore extracted from the mines.
From these wild, strange and dangerous places came the riches that gave Saxony its power. The nobles had the loot, but obviously they wanted something else too. The courtly culture of Saxony constantly returned to its obsession with the raw and savage side of the mines: the prince paraded through the city dressed as the most chic miner in the world; pieces of unrefined ore have become valuable collectibles; the savage Sasquatch-like monster has had its face imprinted on the coinage.
In one Renaissance studies article, “In the Garden of Eden? Mineral knowledge and preaching in the Erzgebirge”, Henrike Haug highlights this strange ambivalence:
Greed and malevolence as vices are closely related to the abuse of gold – which, at the same time, is positively valued as a tribute to God and a means of supporting his church, as well as admired as a beautiful material recalling in its shiny surface the immaterial presence of the light of God. The problem with gold and other precious metals lies in this conflict between their praise in their natural state as a divine blessing and example – and their condemnation after unearthing, in their use in daily life.
Chunks of ore are the spontaneous wealth of the earth, but silver coins are dirty profit. In this light, all the absurdities of the princes of Saxony – the axes of gold and the spun mountains of sugar – can be seen as an attempt to recover what is lost when the ore is refined into the precious metal.
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