Monumental Brass Society

Stillborn Son of the Elector Johann-Georg I of Saxony

Date of Brass:
Freiberg, Dom


December 2011

Brasses are normally monuments to named people. This month’s brass is perhaps unique in elaborately commemorating someone who was never christened, and indeed never lived – except in an anti-abortionist sense. Elsewhere1 I have mentioned a visit to East Germany, which our late President, Malcolm Norris, succeeded in arranging in the mid-1950s. I went along too, as his German/English interpreter. Malcolm was far too kind to say what he really thought of my efforts to rub brasses, so he always explained apologetically that he’d rather make any mistakes himself. Consequently (much to my relief) in places like Erfurt and Zeitz I was left to copy out texts or make simple rubbings of minor inscriptions. Only in Schwerin was I entrusted with really important work, because Malcolm’s vertigo some thirty feet up on a rickety ladder obliged him to hand over to me the rubbing of the canopy on the gigantic brass of the two Bishops von Bülow2; whilst the limited time we had available that day meant that I was sent off by myself to make a rubbing of the Swedish Queen Agnes’ strangely incompetent brass a few miles away in Gadebusch3.

On the last two days of our excursion, however, we were given the run of the splendid Vischer and Hilliger brasses in the cathedrals of Meissen and Freiberg in Saxony – and one look at Freiberg’s carpet of enormous brasses4 will explain why Malcolm had to capitulate, and to ask me to do my best with rubbing as many of the 17th century brasses as I could manage, whilst he concentrated on the finest of the earlier ones – some of which in Meissen were very probably designed by Albrecht Dürer himself5. This was indeed a privilege, for Malcolm remarks of the Freiberg brasses: “These monuments are by far the most important collection of post-Reformation brasses in Europe”6.

And so it was that I found myself rubbing some of the distinguished products of the Hilliger family, whose workshop was in nearby Dresden. One of these was the Duchess Dorothea, who died in 1617. Sadly, the indifferent quality of my rubbings is only too apparent beside Malcolm’s; but he still thought my Duchess worth depicting7 in his classic trilogy, in which he also reproduces my rubbing of this month’s brass: the Duke’s pathetic little son, stillborn in 16088 (and consequently unable to perpetuate the family line, although happily his mother went on to have several more children). The child lies wrapped in swaddling clothes and watched over by a reassuring angel, who gestures to us whilst holding a palm branch – a symbol of the victory of faith over suffering. The elaborately engraved border includes sixteen oval hatchments, to emphasize the infant’s noble lineage. The inscription reads:

Des Durchlauchtigen Hochgebornen Fürsten und Herrn JOHANNES GEORGEN Herzogen

zu Sachsen / Landgrafen in Doringen / und Marggrafen zu Weißen

Erstes Herrlein [?] ist zu Dresden von S: Fürstl:Gn: andern Vielgelieb

ten Gemahlin / Frauwen MAGDALENEN SIBYLLEN gebornen Marggräfin zu Brandenburgk [s] in Preußen Herzogin

Im Jahr 1608 den 18. Julij, des Nachts Zwischen 12 und 1 Uhren Zwar Wohlgestaldt und aller gliedmaßen vollkommen/

aber Todt zur Welt gebohren worden / Welchem der Herr JE=

SUS Christus die ewige Seligkeit geben wolle / Amen

or in free translation:

 His Grace the high-born Prince and Lord, Duke of Saxony, Earl of Doringen and Count of Weissen, Lord JOHANNES GEORG's first son [literally Lordling] was born to the world of his princely Grace's second much-loved wife Lady MAGDALENA SIBYLLE, Countess of Brandenburg and Duchess in Prussia, in the year 1608 on the night of 18th July between 12 and 1 o'clock, although well formed and perfect in all his limbs, yet dead, to whom may the Lord Jesus Christ grant  eternal life. Amen.


Hubert Allen (with grateful thanks to Dr Tony Phelan for deciphering and translating the inscription)


1 MBS Bulletin 87, pp.550-1.

2 Fig. 146 in The Craft and Figs. 40 & 41 in The Memorials.

3 See Malcolm’s comments in The Craft, p.54.and The Memorials, p.48.

4 See Fig. 67 of The Craft.

5 Dürer, like the Vischer family, had his workshop in Nuremberg, and had worked extensively for this same noble family.

6 The Memorials, p.216.

7 Fig. 246 in The Craft: the brass was not engraved until at least half a dozen years later.

8 Fig. 251 in The Memorials.

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