Amber & Poland: A History Crafted in Resin
full-width, pieces_amber_gettyimages.jpg, Poland. Pieces of amber, Gdańsk, photo by Cesar Lucas Abreu/Cover/Getty Images
Poland’s ties with amber have a long history – as early as the Neolithic period, humans were crafting objects out of amber on Polish soil. Culture.pl takes you on a journey through the folk handicraft traditions of the Kurpie region, the golden age of amber in early modern Gdańsk, and the post–War renaissance of amber artisanship.
The Pearl of the North
An amber nugget washed up on a beach in Poland by the Baltic, photo: East News
Amber, the fossilised tree resin, is often known as ‘The Gold of the North’ or the ‘Gem of the Baltic’, because of its beautiful colour. According to the first Polish monograph devoted to it, the 1833 O Bursztynie (On Amber) by the Kraków physician Jan Freyer, ‘Amber is what you call resinous, fossil matter which gives off a characteristic, aromatic so-called amber smell when burning'.
Modern science says amber is made of resin that is about 40 million years old, left behind by a mighty forest (the ‘amber forest’) that once grew in the area of today’s Scandinavia. Back then, in an era called the Eocene, the Earth was a much warmer place than today – the average temperature at its poles may have been as high as 20°C (68°F). That is why the ancient Scandinavian forest had palm trees, cinnamon trees and other plants from warm climates – like coniferous trees. It is the resin from this very tree that created the precious fossil:
Today, a vast majority believe the parent tree of succinate [amber – ed.] to be the araucarias of the genus Agathis, and that opinion is based both on botanical and physics and chemical studies.
Professor Barbara Kosmowska-Ceranowicz, Amber In Poland And The World, 2017
The question arises: how is it, that the trees produced so much resin that we can still find it in abundance 40 million years later? The answer is: to protect themselves. When a tree gets injured, for instance, by borers, birds or by the hailing wind, it covers the wound with resin as if with a plaster. In the ancient forest, where the only law was the survival of the fittest, there were plenty of wounds to nurse – therefore, a lot of resin had to be produced to heal them. Some of it fell off the trees, fossilised, and made it to our times as amber.
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This relic of the Scandinavian forest made it to the shores of the Baltic sea – on the beaches, where it is thrown out by the sea, and in the coastline itself, where it lies beneath the earth. Since it is the product of the reaction to injury, amber is sometimes compared to pearls, which are formed by molluscs when they isolate potential threats (such as parasites) that have entered their shell.
A fact that not everyone may know: the name amber is essentially restricted to fossil resin of Baltic provenance – other similar resins all have their own names, such as copal.
A shattered palace and tears in the rain
People of the Palaeolithic period found amber to be an interesting material and began crafting amulets out of it. The oldest traces of amber workshops on Polish soil date back to over 6000 years ago and can be found in the Niedźwiedziówka settlement, near the coastal city of Gdańsk. Figures of animals or amulets with solar symbols are among the objects that were created around that time. However, in those days, long, long ago, the origin of amber was still a mystery – the only way it could be explained was with a myth.
A popular Polish legend says that amber nuggets are the debris of the sea goddess Jurata’s palace. Her magnificent underwater residence, made entirely of amber, was shattered to pieces by the mighty god Perkun when he found out she was having an affair with a fisherman.
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For a year, Queen Jurata had been coming to the shore every evening to meet with her lover above the water; but when Perkun found out about this, he was infuriated that the goddess had dared fall in love with a mortal. One time when she returned to her palace, he sent a lightning bolt from the sky which split the tides and hit the queen’s residence, killing her and shattering her amber palace into little pieces.
Lucjan Siemieński, Polish, Ruthenian and Lithuanian Legends and Tales, 1845
When the wind gets strong, the sea throws bits of the palace – or amber nuggets – onto the seashore.
Another classic Polish legend comes from the Kurpie region in north-eastern Poland. Even though this area lies further away from the sea, it has been linked to amber for as long as anyone can remember. That’s because the fossil is often found in its soil – glaciers left certain deposits of amber hundreds of kilometres away from the Baltic, even as far away as Ukraine. The ethnographer Adam Chętnik believed that the Kurpie region’s folk traditions linked to amber went back to ancient times. In the year 1927, he wrote:
Only a few decades ago, work on amber in Kurpie still had an almost primordial character. Processing and cutting were done with archaic tools, mostly by hand. The forms and shapes of the beads were almost the same as they had been in this area for hundreds and thousands of years. The amber industry in Kurpie is, so to say, the last link in a chain of old cultures that have been developing in this land throughout the years and eras of old.
Quote from Amber: The Gem Of The Baltic by Zygmunt Mulicki, 1951
Since the Kurpie amber handicraft traditions are, most likely, thousands of years old, the local legend about amber’s origins may be of a similar age. According to the tale, after forty days of rain, the land was flooded. The tears of the people crying over their harsh fate turned into amber when they fell into the flood water.
Interestingly, this myth is somewhat similar to the ancient Greek one, where amber was created from the tears of the Heliades, sisters of Phaeton, who were mourning the death of their brother on a river bank. The sisters were turned into poplars, and their tears which fell into the water turned into amber.
The inhabitants of the Kurpie region also believed that amber had certain magical qualities. For example, its aromatic smoke was considered to be a cure for various illnesses and carrying around a piece of amber was seen as a way of treating infertility.
The oldest city in Poland
Amber was well-known in the times of the Roman empire – it was no longer merely a mythical substance back then. The noted Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote of it: ‘it is created from the resin of pine trees’ – an intuitive but almost accurate conclusion. Romans were very fond of amber and imported it from the southern shores of the Baltic in exchange for such products like silver jewellery, weapons or glass. As a result, a trade route connecting the area of today’s Poland and the Italian peninsula was established and Aquileia in today’s north-eastern Italy became a centre for the processing of amber. The route’s course changed over the years, and in its various iterations, it cut through the Balkans, today’s Czech Republic and Germany.
In Poland, the route went through the area where the city of Kalisz now lies. Some believe the 2nd-century Greek astronomer and geographer Ptolemy mentioned the place – possibly a well-known stop on the trade route – in his Geography, under the name Calisia. If that were true, Kalisz would actually be, as it is sometimes dubbed, ‘the oldest city in Poland’. However, modern archaeology doubts the validity of such claims, saying Calisia must’ve been a different town, most probably in today’s Slovakia.
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Eventually amber also began being also exported to the East, where it caught the attention of Arab merchants. Amber was moved through today’s Ukraine to Constantinople, and farther south to places like Baghdad. The trade contacts catalysed the spreading of cultural influences and the development of the area of today’s Poland.
It seems that the amber trade, the extraordinary need for this characteristic sea product of the Baltic area, made the fossil and its story an immanent element of the history of the region’s culture.
Quote from Polski Bursztyn by Janina Grabowska, 1982
Rings, dice and the death penalty
An amber rosary made by the craftsmen of the Teutonic Order, photo: the Castle Museum in Malbork
The Middle Ages saw the appearance of amber workshops near today’s city of Gdańsk. Similar establishments had existed in the lands of today’s Poland (in Inowrocław or Biskupice) in the times of trading with Rome, but not in that particular area. Eventually, Gdańsk, founded in the early 13th century, was to become one of the world’s most important centres of amber handicraft.
These early workshops manufactured things like rings or dice, requiring a decent amount of skill. In the 10th century, when Poland was just emerging as a state, the rulers of the region were open to the amber workshops. However, the development of the local amber industry was hindered when Gdańsk came under the rule of the Teutonic Order in 1308. The Order enforced state ownership of all amber found on lands under Prussian reign, penalising the withholding of amber finds even with death:
During the rule of the Teutonic Order (1308-1466) amber craftsmen were banned from its lands. Guards carefully watched over amber storehouses, and hiding found amber stones was punished even by death. The Order’s craftsmen, having the exclusive right to work with amber, couldn’t absorb all of the Order’s supply of the resource, so it was transported to Bruges and Lübeck, where it was processed. The most popular product were rosaries, famous in all of Europe.
Quote from Bursztyn – Złoto Bałtyku (Amber – the Gold of the Baltic), a 2011 publication of the National Museum in Szczecin
Apart from rosaries, the Order’s craftsmen created other objects of religious nature, such as sculptures of Catholic saints.
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In 1466, after the Thirteen Years' War, Gdańsk returned to Poland. The reigning Polish king, Kazimierz Jagiellończyk, granted the city of Gdańsk the right to harvest amber in its vicinity, including the amber-rich Hel peninsula. He also allowed for amber handicraft to be practised by private craftsmen and gave the city a monopoly on amber trade, beginning what is often referred to as ‘the Golden Age of Amber’ in the region.
The golden age of amber
Around the year 1480, the guild of amber craftsmen was founded in Gdańsk, and it wasn't long before local artisans started making truly exquisite objects. In the 16th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was experiencing a period of prosperity and Gdańsk, as its main harbour, was flourishing. It was the perfect time for the development of artisan crafts:
The citizens, conscious of the political stature, beauty and – most importantly – of the riches of their town, didn’t spare any expense to manifest their social status. Never again did the exquisite artisan crafts have better conditions for development.
Quote from Polski Bursztyn Janina Grabowska, 1982
Initially, their creations works were chiefly religious in character, such as the 16th-century figure of St. Mary and Child manufactured in the village of Oliwa, near the city (today, the sculpture is part of the collection of the Jasna Góra Monastery). Later, secular products became more popular: medallions, caskets, cabinets or chess sets were becoming the norm. They were given as important diplomatic gifts and embellished the residencies of Polish aristocrats and monarchs. Gdańsk became the European centre for amber processing, and its amber goods went on to become a symbol of Poland. When Duke Krzysztof Zbaraski went to the Ottoman Empire as an envoy in 1622, he presented sultan Osman II and his courtiers with, among other things, the following:
An amber casket with an engraved dryad and sea goddesses, a large mirror in an amber frame and a similar set of tableware. (…) An amber chess set, (…) a jug and platter of white amber.
List based on the 1633 book Przeważna Legacyja (The Gravest Mission) by Samuel Twardowski
The building of the Great Armoury in Gdańsk, built in the years 1602-1605, photo: Diego Delso/Wikipedia
In its ‘golden age’, amber gained such renown that even the Polish king Sigismund III Vasa (Zygmunt III Waza) is said to have crafted objects out of it. A baseless amber cup attributed to him, embellished with lion heads, is part of the collection of the Wawel Royal Castle State Art Collection in Kraków. Another noted piece is the 17th-century portable altar by the master artisan Michał Redlin, believed to have been the field altar of the Polish warrior-king Jan III Sobieski. Thanks to his unparalleled skill, and peoples love of amber, Redlin was so successful, that he had trouble realising all the orders he was receiving (including pieces for the royal court of Sweden). Eventually, the popularity of amber prompted the appearance of new workshops outside of Gdańsk, in nearby towns like Elbląg and Słupsk.
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For greater artistic effect, Sobieski’s altar was adorned with different colours of amber – a trend popular in the golden age. Although ‘amber-coloured’ amber is most well-known, there are dozens of varieties differing in translucency and colour – from yellow, to red and even blue!
Apart from the juxtaposition of different kinds of amber, another distinctive trait of the Gdańsk style was mimicking the city’s architecture. Gdańsk pieces, sometimes described as mannerist, often exhibited traits borrowed from the city’s buildings. The sheer skill required to re-create the aesthetics of such large-scale objects in small amber pieces like ornate caskets continues to amaze to this day.
The Gdańsk artisans’ mastery is said to have expressed itself to the fullest through the creation of the famed albeit lost Amber Room, sometimes called ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World’ for its splendour. In the early 18th century, the king of Prussia, Frederick I, decided that one of the chambers of his Berlin castle would be decorated entirely with amber. To realise his wish, he turned to the best of the best: the Gdańsk baroque architect and sculptor Andreas Schlüter. Schlüter drafted an exquisite design, flawlessly executed by the Gdańsk craftsmen Gottfried Turau and Ernest Schacht (and partially by Gottfried Wolfram, amber artisan to the King of Denmark, who had learned his craft in the city).
This famous amber palace interior exhibited all the typical traits of Gdańsk amber handicraft. Mosaic arrangements of multi-coloured amber, delicate engravings on translucent tiles, showing scenes from fishermen’s lives, deeply cut ornamental reliefs, solid figural sculptures. All of this amounted to a whole that was one-of-a-kind.
Quote from Polski Bursztyn by Janina Grabowska, 1982
In 1716, the interior was presented as a gift to Tsar Peter the Great and installed first in the Winter Palace in Petersburg and later, at the Tsarskoye Selo residence. Sadly, it was lost during World War II; it's unsolved disappearance being an ever-popular topic among lovers of conspiracy theories.
A gift for the bride and the writer
Amber beads designed and crafted by the known Kurpie creator Zdzisław Bziukiewicz, who learned how to work on amber from his father, photo: Grażyna Myślińska/Forum
The Amber Room was the pinnacle of the amber handicraft achievement. In the 18th century, after centuries of vibrant growth, the craft began to fade. It was the rise of amber prices as well as the mass production of such items as amber beads, for which artisans’ skills weren’t required, which brought the golden age to an end. Moreover, a change in fashion occurred, and delicate and somewhat impractical objects such as caskets and cabinets weren’t as coveted as much as they had been.
By the time Gdańsk was found itself under Prussian rule yet again due to the partitions of Poland in 1793, the golden age of amber had ended. In 1879, the invention of amberoid – a material made up of small pieces of amber combined with the use of heat and pressure – allowed for the factory production of semi-amber products. This was a long way away from the mannerist masterpieces of old… By the turn of the 20th century, most artisan amber workshops had closed their doors.
Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s set of amber writing accesories, part of the collection of the National Museum in Poznań, photo: NMP
However, the folk traditions of amber handicraft lived on – in Masuria, Kashubia and Kurpie. The amber heritage of the latter is especially well-known thanks to research done by Adam Chętnik. One of the most important Kurpie traditions was the manufacturing of wedding necklaces given as a dowry to the bride. These would typically have smaller stones on the sides, larger ones in the middle and a big centrepiece made of the finest amber, often featuring an inclusion (something trapped in the resin, like a leaf or insect). Such necklaces would be treated with great care and handed on from generation to generation.
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Among the greatest works of local artisans is a set of amber writing accessories made for the noted penman Józef Ignacy Kraszewski:
The Museum of Applied Arts in Poznań possesses a product by the Bracia Bernstein company from the town of Ostrołęka, manufactured as a gift for Józef Ignacy Kraszewski on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his literary debut, celebrated in 1879 in Kraków. It’s a writing set consisting of an octagonal inkwell, such a sand container with a disc-like cover, both adorned with floral friezes engraved in opaque, yellow amber, and of a seal with an amber handle and a silver tile with the writer’s monogram.
Professor Barbara Kosmowska-Ceranowicz, Amber In Poland And The World, 2017
When you browse various publications on amber, you find that an ‘amber renaissance’ on Polish soil took place only after World War II, when much of the Baltic coastline, including Gdańsk, was returned to Poland.
New workshops opened, but only toward the end of the 60s, when artists started working alongside craftsmen, a persistent growth of interest in amber and the quality of the works appeared. (…) A ‘Polish school' of amber began to emerge, juxtaposing succinate with silver. (…) Today the tradition of Gdańsk amber handicraft is echoed chiefly by monumental sculptures and decorative objects of an everyday character like caskets, lamps, candle holders, tableware, cups, tankards, vases, platters, chess sets.
Quote from Bursztyn – Złoto Bałtyku (Amber – the Gold of the Baltic), a 2011 publication by the National Museum in Szczecin
Among those that helped start the trend were Maria and Paweł Fietkiewicz, a couple who were both graduates of the Gdańsk Academy of Fine Arts. Their highly valued works include pieces of amber jewellery tastefully focussing on the fossil’s origin with their silver twig-like settings. In recognition of the pair’s importance, the Amber Museum in Gdańsk devoted a special exhibition to them in 2009.
arts and crafts
In 2002, the noted amber artisan and art theorist Giedymin Jabłoński created a circular solar amulet, inspired by the earliest Neolithic Polish archaeological finds of amber handicraft. Thus the story of amber artisanship on Polish soil came full circle. Today, amber remains Poland’s not-so-hidden gem.
Author: Marek Kępa, May 2018