Clone of An Orthopaedic Stretcher from the Dresden Kunstkammer

Clone of An Orthopaedic Stretcher from the Dresden Kunstkammer

An Orthopaedic Stretcher from the Dresden Kunstkammer. Origin: German, c. 1548-1585. Material: etched, gilded, and blackened iron. Length: 54cm. Source: Germanisches National Museum, Inventory Number WI1244.

Among the array of medical instruments in the Kunstkammer of Elector August of Saxony (r. 1553-1586) is an object that looks as though it would be better suited to the Dresden palace’s extensive armoury. August’s Kunstkammer, although not a haphazard storage space, was filled with puzzling objects of natural and artificial origin. This imposing creation, which resembles a greave belonging to a suit of fine parade armour, is rather a medical implement well suited to the Elector’s interests in technology both practical and innovative. 

The orthopaedic stretcher, or orthosis, was designed to heal injuries sustained in combat among other activities, rather than used in combat itself. As Imperial Hunting Master and a participant in over fifty tournaments, August would have been familiar with the wounds acquired by men of arms, including those that make limbs stiff and immovable. A flesh wound that has scarred over can cause this immobility, as can damage to or shortening of the muscle. To regain the limb’s use, gradual and carefully regulated flexion must be observed, thus necessitating a strong, purpose-designed screw to guide the limb’s angle. The screw, a device of ancient precedent and a speciality of the Dresden palace’s honoured schraubenmachern (screw-makers), had been employed in the creation of siege weapons, lifting devices, and surgical implements among many other devices. The creation of an efficient screw required knowledge of geometry so that the device can be operated with ease and at the proper rate, and metallurgy, a necessity in producing a component of complex design and capable of sustaining heavy loads. These disciplines, which regulated nature and occupied renaissance princes throughout Europe, united in this princely orthosis that controls the angle of the leg through two etched, gilded rods threaded into thick heads. Turning the screws with a wrench at the squared middle surface would simultaneously elongate or contact either of the legs, which were held into the device with leather straps. The leg’s position could also be altered by manipulating the screws to different degrees, enabling left or right bias at the knee. 

As Fabian Brenker points out, the design of the orthosis had been illustrated in German texts before the time of August. Their authors outlined the construction and use of the device, which in the illustrations are also composed of metal plates reminiscent of contemporary armour. Within the towns and cities of the Holy Roman Empire in the sixteenth century, armourers had achieved the pinnacle of their craft, and so the familiar form of the orthosis was derived from the craft traditions at and the princely fashions that contributed to them. Despite its likeness to the sixteenth-century greave, the orthosis appears to have been made with a medical intention from the outset and only mimics the appearance of combat gear, as the rivets along the knee joint for example, have no structural function. It is also likely that, given the relative availability of bespoke armour and the specialised nature of the screw-maker’s craft, this orthosis was the product of at least two separate craftsmen. This rare orthosis, etched with the combined arms of Elector August and Electress Anna, embodies the Elector’s princely fascination with objects of practical use and technical ingenuity, including those that rehabilitate the inflicted. 

Commentary: Andrew Biedermann (April 2022) 

Further reading

Brenker, Fabian. “Ein orthopädisches Harnischinstrument zum Strecken krummer Beine aus der Dresdner Kunstkammer Kurfürst Augusts von Sachsen (1526-1586).” NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medezin, 30, pp. 89-107, 2022.   

Syndram, Dirk. “Die Anfange der Dresdner Kunstkammer .“ In Dirk Syndram and Martina Minning Eds., Die Kurfürstlich-Sachsische Kunstkammer in Dresden: Geschichte einer Sammlung. Dresden, Sandstein Verlag, 2012.