The State Robe of Elector Johann Georg I of Saxony, 1611

The State Robe of Elector Johann Georg I of Saxony, 1611
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, inventory number i. 0008.01

State Robe of Elector Johann Georg I of Saxony (r. 1611-1656), embroidered by Hans Erich in Dresden, 1611.

Dimensions. Hem circumference of 615.5 cm

Why would a high noble wear a map, and what would such a garment suggest about the way power and possession is expressed in his court? This vibrant silk and gold embroidered state robe, received by Elector Johann Georg in the year of his accession, represents both a possession of fantastic Electoral material wealth and a dynastic identity as embodied by land. With a distinct lack of armorial devices, the garments which include a coat, hat, doublet, trousers, and belt, situates along the river Elbe the cities of Dresden, along the bottom register, and Meissen by the shoulders, as emblems of Saxony. The blue-green spaces that envelope the aerial perspective can be understood as a neutral sky or sea border and are more easily draped around the shoulders. The embroidered map lacks the topographic accuracy or scale needed for useful orientation and instead places two distorted images of locations in a place of prominence. The recognition of several distinct urban landmarks is all that is needed to identify these large and complex places. The hat and garments that lie beneath the coat also address the landscapes of Saxony and string miniature views of commerce and country vistas across the body of the Elector.  

The absence of any reference to lineage in favour of images of major cities is politically motivated, as Johann Georg’s line of the Wettin family, the Albertines, had in 1547 seized the Electoral dignity from their Wittenberg-based Ernestine relatives. Situated by the coat’s shoulders is Meissen, the ancestral home of the Albertine Wettins, while upstream is the Electoral seat of Dresden, complete with a conspicuous skyline that signals its membership within a league of Europe’s premier capitals. Through the efforts of the Albertine Wettins, Dresden had earned a reputation as the ‘Florence on the Elbe’ and a centre of courtly patronage and power. The new courtly resplendence of Saxony is observable in the cloak’s depiction of a grand boar hunt taking place on the outskirts of the Electoral city. But such court festivities were possible only thanks to considerable financial security, represented by the abundant commercial and agricultural activity supported by the Elbe, and the military protection conspicuously rendered in the form of defensive walls and guns. 

When draped in his circular state robe, Johann Georg would have been positioned at the centre of an arial view of his lands. The message is clear- he was the centre of Saxon power and natural resources, as well as the eye that sees and controls the activities of his domain. That a map such as this is not only mobile and public, but touching the Elector’s body proclaims the instillation of hereditary power in one person.  

Mapmaking, which had been an activity of the Saxon electors since the reign of Augustus (r.1553-1586), had its own connotations of princely regulation and vision. To map one’s lands would be to understand and legally define a place within the patchwork Holy Roman Empire. But mapping is also an effective method of showcasing the possession of early modern Europe’s most treasured commodity; land. Distinct impressions of cities could also become powerful and reproducible symbols of their international renown, as they were in early printed texts such as the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle. At this time, large scale maps were created to line the grand spaces of princely residences, and like the Electoral robe, contributed to a courtly vanity of geographic area. Privileged individuals such as foreign dignitaries were among the prime targets for such cartographic suggestions of power, and that this robe would have been worn in the presence of internationally important figures means that the garment functioned as part of a scheme to elevate Saxony to a politically and culturally central domain. This robe, then, functions as a vivid illustration of Johann Georg’s memorialization of his forebears as well as the art and science of cartography, which propelled Elector Augustus’ ambitions as a restructuring ruler and ultimately became a mode of public grandeur at the European stage.  

Commentary. Andrew Biedermann (November 2021)


SKD online collection reference.

Bäumel, J., Princely Splendor, The Dresden Court 1580-1620, SKD, Dresden and Mondadori Electa, Milan, 2004, Pp.46-47 

Barber, Peter and Tom Harper., Magnificent Maps, Power Propaganda and Art, The British Library, 2010