The mastery of a hard-paste porcelain technology in Dresden in 1708 was a major natural philosophical achievement for the European Enlightenment. From the outset, the material possessed a representative function at the Saxon court, where it served to promote the power and cultural prestige of the Wettin dynasty. As porcelain factories were established at courts across Europe, however, the material's signifying role became complex. On the one hand, its alchemical associations aligned it with unfettered princely power in the realm of the absolutist court. On the other, its origins in laboratory investigation could indicate a princely engagement with the Enlightenment pursuit of scientific knowledge. These contradictory associations reached an apogee in the so-called “Catholic Enlightenment,” producing artworks that sought to consolidate the church. This paper analyzes the Zwettler Tafelaufsatz—the great porcelain table centerpiece that was created in 1768 as part of a multimodal baroque celebration of Abbot Rayner Kollmann's jubilee at the Cistercian monastery of Zwettl in Lower Austria. Here the porcelain medium enabled the Cistercian brethren to argue for the continuing role of monasteries and monastic scholarship in eighteenth-century Enlightenment learning, while simultaneously declaring the limits of human learning and the ultimate supremacy of divine revelation in the context of an absolutist world order.

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