The Cradle of Saxony, Gothic glories in Meissen

Meissen, the historic centre of European porcelain manufacture, is a beautiful, historic town with an extraordinary castle and cathedral that rise majestically above the River Elbe. Most visitors still come for its associations with Augustus the Strong’s ‘White Gold’, but the narrow cobbled lanes that wind upwards from the river, through a lovely town square, to the 15th century Albrechtsburg Castle makes it well worth a visit in its own right.

Built between 1471 and 1524, the Albrechtsburg Castle is a Gothic beauty that sits on top of a rocky outcrop. It’s a dramatic sight that is now globally famous for being the birthplace of European porcelain. It was here that, in 1708, the failed alchemist Johann Frederick Böttger claimed to have found both the correct ingredients and process to produce porcelain in Europe for the first time. For the next 153 years, the castle was transformed into a factory churning out magnificent porcelain creations.

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Rathaus, Meissen, Germany

Albrechtsburg Castle, Meissen, Germany

The history of Meissen dates back much further though. It was founded in 929 on the orders of Henry I, known as Henry the Fowler because of his passion for hunting. The Duke of Saxony, Henry built his town on the site of an earlier Slav settlement. It’s a history that seemed to seep from the walls as we walked the quiet streets in the early morning. Meissen fills with tourists later in the day, but early morning is wonderfully atmospheric.

Ringed by Gothic buildings on all sides, the central marketplace sits at the heart of the Altstadt, including the lovely Rathaus. The equally beautiful and Gothic Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady, looms over one end of the square. The carillon in the church tower is visible from the square, it’s the oldest made from porcelain in the world. We walked past the Frauenkirche down deserted streets, before climbing steeply upwards towards the expansive castle complex.

As we climbed, we got views over the red-tiled rooftops of the Altstadt, the River Elbe and surrounding countryside. On a sunny Sunday morning it was absolutely beautiful. We wandered through the cemetery of the Church of Saint Afra, before turning a corner to find ourselves walking across a small bridge and through the gatehouse into the courtyard of the castle and cathedral. We’d timed our arrival well, the castle cafe was just opening and we sat in the sun eating a traditional cake of poppy seeds.

Viewed from the top of the town, Meissen and the surrounding area is a picturesque place. We finished our cake and took in the views over the river, from where we could see what looked like vineyards. Surprisingly, there’s an active wine industry in Saxony, one of the most northerly. Making our way down winding stairways to the town square the streets were still remarkably quiet, but as we reentered the square we came face-to-face with a tour group.

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Meissen, Germany

Albrechtsburg Castle, Meissen, Germany

Meissen had one more surprise, but only because I vaguely recognised a name as we walked back along Hahnemannsplatz. The last time I saw the name Hahnemann, I was in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The medical charlatan and pseudoscience  inventor of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, was born in Meissen in 1755. The third child of a porcelain painter his contribution to the world might have been greater if he’d stayed in the family business.

Porcelain was invented only a few hundred metres away by an alchemist who claimed he could turn base metal into gold. He lied, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Meissen could turn out other scientific cranks as well. The spirit of making things up was very 18th century, but it did at least lead to genuine scientific breakthroughs.

Meissen’s ‘White Gold’, inventing European porcelain

The invention of European porcelain, one of the most valued and valuable commodities in 18th century Europe, was ironically a byproduct of the failed attempt to turn base metal into gold. This though was no runners-up prize. Porcelain was imported from China – where it had been invented centuries earlier – at immense cost. So sought after was porcelain that it was known as ‘white gold’, and European rulers competed for the glory (and wealth) that discovering its hidden secrets would bring.

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

The King or Prince who controlled the production of porcelain would be rich beyond their wildest dreams. Well, maybe not beyond the wildest dreams of the man who would eventually own the secret of porcelain. Augustus the Strong of Saxony was a man who, on his death-bed, confessed that, “all my life has been one ceaseless sin”. His pursuit of porcelain was pure avarice combined with the desire to make Saxony the most powerful state in the Holy Roman Empire.

It would fall to the alchemist and part-time charlatan, Johann Frederick Böttger, to do the actual inventing. Augustus believed the knowledge Böttger claimed to have was so valuable that he made him a prisoner, albeit a comfortable one, for twelve years. First in Dresden, where he was put to work trying to invent the Philosopher’s Stone, the magical substance that would turn base metal into gold, and Augustus into a very rich man.

In 1705, after four years and numerous failed attempts (and at least one failed escape attempt), Böttger announced that he would produce his first gold in 16 weeks. At the end of which, and presumably fearing for his life, he announced that although he had failed again, he would unearth the secret of porcelain instead. That may have saved his life, but it only meant a new prison, this time in Meissen where Böttger was held in the Albrechtsburg, a dramatic 15th century castle.

Here, in collaboration with Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, European porcelain would be produced for the very first time. This discovery didn’t lead to Böttger gaining his freedom, after all he might sell his secrets to another European ruler. Augustus kept him prisoner for several more years. Tschirnhaus was almost certainly the real inventor of the wonderous white pottery but he died in 1708, allowing Böttger to claim it as his. Soon afterwards, Europe’s first porcelain factory started production in Meissen.

I first came across Böttger and the quest to invent European porcelain when I read The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story of the Invention of European Porcelain. I’ve been intending to visit Meissen ever since and, more importantly, the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, the direct descendent of the one founded in 1710. Today, it’s located a couple of kilometres outside Meissen in a state-of-the-art factory where the still impossibly valuable ‘white gold’ is produced by hand to the very highest standards.

When I say ‘impossibly valuable’, I mean a €72,000 price tag for a porcelain vase filled with porcelain fruits. Seriously, who’s buying this stuff? Even the tea cups come in at a not entirely reasonable €69. Admittedly, some of the more elaborate pieces – and they are truly elaborate – can take months to make by highly skilled craftspeople with years of training and decades of experience. Which might justify the pupil-dilating cost of the items on display in the manufactory’s showrooms.

Böttger bust, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Augustus the Strong, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Germany

Albrechtsburg, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

A ticket for the factory tour – actually a series of rooms where people perform the hand made processes – came with a €15 voucher for the shop. Until I learned how expensive everything was this seemed like a nice gesture. After the tour we went to the museum, where pieces sparkle under the lights. Here we learned that the formulas for 10,000 different porcelain colours are kept in a secure location, as are plaster moulds dating back 300 years, allowing the factory to reproduce ancient designs and colours.

I don’t really get the appeal of porcelain but its history, filled with deceit, intrigue and even murder, is fascinating. Afterwards, we headed off to Meissen to see where it all started.