The Thirty Years War, which convulsed Central Europe four centuries ago, has seared itself into our collective memory as one of the most dramatic periods of European history. The conflict, which began in 1618 with the Prague Defenestration, escalated over the following decades into a bitter struggle for religious dominance and political hegemony within Europe. Famine, death and disease decimated the population, in some areas by as much as two thirds; whole regions were devastated, causing huge numbers of people to be displaced. Yet even during the war, artistic production never came to a standstill. On the contrary, art continued to fulfil important functions: works of art were used to demonstrate power and authority, were exchanged as diplomatic gifts, documented military encounters and served as admonitions for peace.
The high regard in which art was held meant that it was coveted everywhere as spoils of war, especially in these times of crisis. To an unprecedented extent, targeted looting campaigns were undertaken, which led to entire collections being appropriated and taken away by the victors, including important libraries such as the Bibliotheca Palatina in Heidelberg (1622). As a result of these changes of ownership, looted art was transported back and forth across Europe, undergoing changes of significance and interpretation in the process. These works are now held in museums around the world, and their multifaceted history makes them part of Europes common cultural heritage.
Four hundred years after the start of the Thirty Years War, eleven renowned museums and research institutions from Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Poland, Austria, Italy, Spain and Belgium have come together to paint an encompassing picture of these epoch-making events in an international research and exhibition project called BELLUM ET ARTES. From 2021 to 2025, a series of exhibitions, conferences and workshops is planned under the joint auspices of the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO) in Leipzig and the SKD
. The partners involved are the National Gallery in Prague, the Tiroler Landesmuseen (Tyrolean Provincial Museums) in Innsbruck, the Complesso Museale Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, the National Museum in Gdansk, the University Museum in Wrocław, the Schlesische Museum (Silesian Museum) in Görlitz, the Livrustkammaren (Royal Armoury) in Stockholm, the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid and the House of European History in Brussels. Each of the institutions involved in the project represents a different region affected by the Thirty Years War. They are all united by the aim of establishing long-term and intensive cooperation in the field of research, museum work, and education on the role of art during the Thirty Years' War.
With around 150 objects from among the SKDs holdings, supplemented by numerous international loans, the Dresden exhibition presents a comprehensive picture of the role of art during the war, particularly in Saxony, while simultaneously drawing parallels with present-day issues. Questions are raised about such topics as European cohesion, the effects of flight and migration, the treatment of looted art, or the relevance of cultural heritage in the formation of national identities.
The exhibition, which is divided into five sections on different themes, begins directly on the battlefield, with a presentation in the Fürstengalerie (Princes Gallery) of Dresdens former Electoral and Residenzschloss (Royal Palace). Here, field armour, pistols, pikes and swords, as well as pitch rings and cast-iron hand grenades, are on display as rare surviving examples of military equipment from the period. Important battles, including the one at White Mountain in 1620, were meticulously recorded by artists in pictorial images intended for their contemporaries and for posterity. Engraving proved to be a particularly suitable medium for this purpose.
Besides engravings, the horrors of war were captured primarily in drawings and prints, but also in paintings. The most important painter of this time who used his artistic work to serve the cause of peace was Peter Paul Rubens, who is represented in the exhibition with an allegory on war painted around 1628.
Another section leads visitors to an opulent banqueting table, where the main protagonists in the war are presented, including the Saxon electoral couple Johann Georg I and Magdalena Sibylla, the Winter King, Friedrich V of the Palatinate and his wife Elizabeth Stuart, Maximilian I of Bavaria, Cardinal Richelieu, the Habsburg Emperors Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III, as well as King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and his daughter and successor Christina. They were all united by an interest in art, on which they continued to spend large sums even during the war.
In a final chapter, the organisers of the exhibition consider the issues posed by art captured as war booty. A selection of high-quality works of looted art held in various princely collections is on show. The question is also raised as to the impact of such looting on cultural transfer within Europe. At interactive multimedia stations, visitors can trace the routes of displaced works from their places of origin to their present-day locations, as well as following the changing fortunes of individual artists during the Thirty Years War. Audio stations also convey a vivid impression of the fate of the population through eyewitness accounts and letters.
In addition to the Fürstengalerie, the exhibition extends to other areas of the Residenzschloss. The Sponsel Room in the Neues Grünes Gewölbe focuses attention on the Elector of Saxony at the time, Johann Georg I, while in the Studiolo in the Georgenbau, important archival documents and contracts are presented. Furthermore, numerous other works linked to the Thirty Years War can be discovered in the permanent exhibitions of the Grünes Gewölbe and the Armoury. Specially marked, they form a common thread through the Residenzschloss.