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Discovering Porcelain of Medieval Meissen

June 18, 1989|JOY SCHALEBEN LEWIS | Lewis is a free-lance writer living in Milwaukee, Wis

MEISSEN, East Germany — To Germans East or West and porcelain lovers the world over, Meissen china is incomparable.

Meissen is a pretty medieval town of narrow lanes, quiet corners and courtyards. It lies deep in East Germany, tucked between the sunny vineyards of the Elbe River about 25 miles northwest of Dresden.

The gray, ponderous building in the heart of the city may look stodgy, but inside it's a different story.

The Meissen Porcelain Museum is a palace of shiny parquet floors; crystal chandeliers; ceiling frescoes; arched windows and doorways; intricate moldings; wide, graceful staircases, and marble columns trimmed in gold.

Bright, airy and elegant, this is the perfect setting for precious porcelain: dazzling goblets, figurines, clocks, chess sets, tiles, urns, animal sculptures, chandeliers, wall hangings and lots of cups, saucers and plates.

Masterfully crafted, some appear as delicate as wildflowers softly hued in the colors of spring meadows. Others--big, bold and brilliant white--flaunt the beauty of a queen wrapped in ermine.

Infinite Styles

Styles are baroque, rococo, classical and abstract, color variations are infinite and designs are in the thousands. Add picturesque ornamentation. Make it the world's hardest china and you begin to grasp the fascination this porcelain holds for its admirers.

Meissen porcelain is said to be tough, but drop it and it still shatters. Astonishingly, many priceless museum pieces are not locked behind protective glass, such as you would see in the United States.

Enormous vases and sculptures--like a peacock, court jester or giant vulture--stand nonchalantly in the open, perched on wooden blocks.

As I leaned over a huge vase delicately painted with a profusion of butterflies and flowers, I expected to hear the all-too-familiar verboten (forbidden) from a nearby museum guard.

But not one verboten , not a single "do not touch."

Hordes of porcelain lovers move freely throughout the museum close enough to brush the irreplaceable china.

Scattered tables are beautifully draped and elegantly set. If there were chairs, it would be hard to resist sitting down for coffee and kuchen, or better, a 10-course banquet.

Only one table setting is roped off. It showcases a stunning, snow-white 2,000-piece china set created by the great 18th-Century master, Johann Joachim Kaendler.

Not only do you breathe in this precious porcelain, but artisans create East Germany's coveted export right before your eyes. On the ground floor are five demonstration halls. Tours are in German.

If you don't speak the language, the guide offers a drawer jammed with tape recordings in Japanese, Hungarian, Arabic, Turkish, Korean, French, Russian, Chinese, Finnish and English.

Starts With Basics

The first hall demonstrates the basics: a brief history of porcelain and a simple explanation of the materials and processes involved.

In the other halls, artisans demonstrate their amazing skills. Each piece is made by hand--from start to finish.

As you watch, the recording will explain what each artisan is doing and why. One molds vases and plates on a potter's wheel. The next deftly attaches flowers, leaves, hats or boots to a figurine.

Another paints Meissen's most famous design--the cobalt-blue onion pattern--as another creates multicolored flowers. Meissen makes 180 basic colors in formulas as secret today as when they were first developed.

This most famous china came to be through greed. In the early 1700s, hundreds of alchemists vied to discover a formula for transforming base metals into gold. One such alchemist was Johann Friedrich Boettger, a Berlin pharmacist of old Prussia.

Just as the King of Prussia got wind of Boettger's talent, the young man fled to Saxony. The Prussian king asked the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, Augustus the Strong, to extradite Boettger. Augustus refused. Always short of cash, he prayed the alchemist might make gold for him .

Meanwhile, the Saxon Court was spending large sums importing Chinese and Japanese porcelain--in those days, an ultimate display of wealth and authority.

When the alchemist failed to create gold, a prominent physicist convinced Augustus that what Boettger really should do was uncover the secret of fine porcelain.

In 1709 Boettger proudly announced: "I've made white gold!" To guard this priceless discovery of a European hard-paste, August chose Albrechtsburg Castle in Meissen as the place where "white gold" should be produced.

High on a hill above the town's rooftops, the Gothic castle afforded a commanding view of the Elbe River Valley and all who approached it.

In 1720 artist and chemist Johann Hoeroldt arrived in Meissen to join Boettger. His goal: to develop paints that would surpass the colors of the Far East. With white gold and its lovely secret-formula paints in production, only one ingredient was lacking--design.

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