The Kunsthistorisches Museum is Vienna’s answer to the Louvre, home to a prestigious collection of antiquities and Ancient Egyptian artefacts, as well as works by some of the great artists of the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods – such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer or Raphael and Titian.
There really is something for everyone – Egyptian sarcophagi, ancient busts of Roman emperors, works by the great masters of the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods, and even an exclusive collection of exquisite baroque ivorywork.
There’s so much to see that you’ll probably need to visit at least twice. But then maybe that’s not such a bad thing!
Plan your visit before you arrive because the museum is huge! Buy your ticket online and make sure you get an audio guide.
Paris has the Louvre, Madrid the Prado, Rome the Vatican Museums… and Vienna has the Kunsthistorisches Museum (or KHM for short). This exceptional collection includes works by many of the great artists – from many different periods, movements and styles – all housed in a stunning 19th century building with wonderful painted ceilings and exquisitely decorated staircases and rooms.
At the KHM you won’t just find one beautifully decorated sarcophagus or one Ancient Egyptian death mask… You’ll find five, six or even seven of them! And if one work by Rubens is enough to put a smile on your face, you’ll be in seventh heaven, because the KHM has more than 30! Plus, if you’ve not yet discovered the astonishing ivory sculptures by the unnamed Master of the Furies, you’re in for a real treat.
The whole museum is spread across two floors and 88 rooms. There are five main collections, which I’ll quickly introduce now:
First up is the Egyptian collection which has more than 17,000 exhibits, making it one of the most significant collections of its kind in the world. The collection covers 4500 years of ancient Egyptian history and is organised into different periods and themes, including funerary cult, cultural history and the development of writing.
Next up is the collection of antiquities which spans three millennia, from the Bronze Age to the Early Middle Ages. Around 2500 objects are currently on display in the exhibition (with many more stored in the archives).
The Kunstkammer is a collection of gold pieces, ivory and wood sculptures, and miniatures. At first glance, you might not think it’s for you, but I’d recommend giving it a go. These exquisite works of art crafted from some of the world’s most precious materials really are very impressive.
The picture gallery, just like the Egyptian collection, is one of the most important of its kind in the world, showcasing centuries of work by the great Italian artists, including Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Raphael and Caravaggio, and northern European artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, van Eyck, von der Weyden, Rubens, van Dyck, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Dürer and Cranach.
Finally, we come to the coin collection, which is one of the five largest in the world with more than 600,000 pieces. (Yes, you read that correctly!) The collection spans three millennia and includes coins, medallions, paper money and stock certificates.
If you like your art a bit more modern, I’d recommend you head for the main staircase where you will find a series of murals created by Gustav Klimt, his brother Ernst Klimt and friend Franz Matsch, known collectively as the ‘Company of Artists’. The murals depict a series of stunning male and female figures and pay tribute to the important periods of art history represented in the museum’s own collections.
The main staircase also houses a sculpture entitled ‘Theseus and the Centaur’ by Antonio Canova from 1810–1819 which was commissioned by Napoleon and later acquired by Austrian emperor Francis I. following Napoleon’s defeat.
The KHM is huge – so big that it doesn’t fit into a 1-minute video. That’s why you’ll only find a small selection of all the highlights here!
Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Think of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/1530–1569) and three things immediately spring to mind: his painting of the ‘Tower of Babel’, his Wimmelbilder (or busy pictures) and his series of landscapes depicting the seasons. Nicknamed ‘Funny Peter’ or ‘Peasant Bruegel’, he created highly complex works of art with many tiny details, every one of which was deliberately painted to achieve a specific purpose. Life’s pleasures, virtues and sins and also fantastical scenarios are among the significant recurring themes in his work, as are the ideas of faith in God and the hope of the certainty of salvation.
TOWER TO BABEL
Dated 1563 Oak wood Image dimensions: 114.4 cm × 155.5 cm × 3.8 cm
His painting of the ‘Tower of Babel’ is the most famous and most copied image of its kind. It’s also a fascinating piece with many intriguing details.
Here’s a little introduction to whet your appetite:
The subject of the painting is the Tower of Babel as referenced in the Book of Genesis: “Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens […] So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11: 4–9 NIV)” Brueghel sets the story in his homeland of the Netherlands, so the tower is depicted in a typical landscape of drained wetlands (known as polder) and the people are wearing Dutch dress.
The design of the tower was inspired by the Colosseum, but you’ll notice that the inner steps go up to the centre, rather than down into the middle, because it’s a tower not an arena.
The construction methods depicted (cranes, scaffolds, etc.) are those that would have been used in Brueghel’s day, but you’ll see that he’s used a mix of ancient and romanesque architectural elements.
The idea of constructing a tower up to heaven seems a hopeless task. Yet when you look at Brueghel’s clever design, it somehow seems to make sense and you believe him – this tower really could reach up to heaven!
THE MASTER OF THE FURIES
In this day and age, ivory carving is something we are most likely to talk about in a negative light in the context of animal welfare, but it has existed as an art form since the Upper Palaeolithic era (9700 B.C.). A plain and simple material, ivory was readily available and turned out to last and last, which is more than can be said for wood. That made it the perfect candidate for creating artwork and jewellery through the ages.
But there’s one ivory sculptor and one ivory sculptor alone that we need to talk about here and now… the Master of the Furies. It is hard to comprehend how he created his incredible ivory masterpieces. His creativity and artistic skills were always on the mark, but his exceptional technical capability was actually more important in a way. It would have only taken one false move to completely ruin a sculpture. And yet, he managed to capture the finest of hairs and subtle folds in clothes in his bold, striking designs. All his figures are wildly animated and full of emotion, ready to captivate anyone who looks at them.
His sculptures caused quite a stir at the time (around 1600), as nobody had ever seen anything quite like them before. The identity of this anonymous artist has never been revealed, so we know him only as the Master of the Furies. This nickname comes from his characteristic work – a shouting Fury – that is on display at the KHM.
The Fury’s face is distorted with emotion and his drapery is flapping around in the wind. What even is a Fury? In Greek mythology, Furies (also known as Erinyes) are goddesses of vengeance. This famous sculpture by the Master of the Furies, though, has male features and a flat chest.
The sculptor never signed any of his work and yet 25 unique masterpieces have been identified as having his craftsmanship. You can check out the Phoenix and five of his other sculptures at the KHM.
Kunsthistorisches Museum A bit of history
The Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art Museum) in Vienna was commissioned in 1857 by Emperor Franz Joseph I at the same time as the Naturhistorisches Museum (Nature History Museum). The two museums occupy almost identical buildings along the prominent Ringstraße, which was built as part of the 1858 plans to expand the city.
Initially, opinions were divided on the best location for such a prominent museum, and it wasn’t until an architectural competition in 1867 that a final decision was made. The competition was won by the architects Carl von Hasenauer and Gottfried Semper (the same man who designed the Semperoper opera house in Dresden), who drew up plans for two Italian renaissance style buildings to house the two museums. Building work began on 27 November 1871 and 20 years later, on 17 October 1891, the museum was officially opened to the public. You only have to look at the final result to see just how much money and artistic talent the Emperor invested in the project.
The KHM collection is an amalgamation of several older collections, namely those belonging to the Habsburgs and Emperor Rudolf II and also the painting collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. Two years after the museum opened, the collections from the Upper and Lower Belvedere palaces were also moved to the KHM or Hofmuseum as it was then called.
The museum survived the First World War unscathed. The transition from empire to republic was equally smooth and on 19 November 1918 the museum was placed under the protection of the Republic of German-Austria. Following this, however, the museum experienced a somewhat turbulent period during which both Italy and Belgium demanded the return of certain works and in 1919 the Italians forcibly removed 62 paintings from the museum.
In 1920, the Hofmuseum was renamed the Kunsthistorisches Staatsmuseum Wien.
Today the museum incorporates a number of other museums in the city, including the Neue Burg, the Austrian Theatre Museum, the Theseustempel (Theseus Temple), the Imperial Treasury at the Hofburg, the Weltmuseum Wien and the Imperial Carriage Museum at the Schönbrunn Palace.
Official website of the Kunsthistorisches Museum: www.khm.at