Saturday, December 11, 2010

Theseus Gem

The black agate intaglio of a youth set in rose gold ring.
gem measures 23 x 15 mm.

Dear Reader,
Yet another gem has entered my life, found with an antique jewelry dealer in NYC. It is an image of a heroic youth wearing what I first took to be a lion skin as a helmet as Alexander had in his coins, carved into black agate, and set in a Victorian rose gold ring engraved on the back with initials and the date, "July 23rd, 1880".

View of the back showing the inscription.

It was assumed by the dealer, and myself, that the gem has to be 18th, 19th Century, given the ring, the hard polish of the surface, and the extended oval with a lot of negative space around the carving, more than is typical in ancient gems. However what grabbed my attention as the quality of the carving and image; it is very direct and unfussy in execution and yet fierce. The large open eyes, bulging Scopaic brow reminiscent of Alexander the Great's images, the hair which springs up from the forehead, and the unpolished carved areas of the skin and hair, and the polish of the animal skin remind me of the best of ancient intaglio carvings. Usually the Neo-Classical copyists did not get the spirit of ancient work right, they are usually fussier and finer in detail than ancient work, showing off their mastery of the craft.

Another photo showing the intaglio in reflected light.

When I first saw the gem I assumed the skin on the head was the typical lion skin, known from images of Hercules who slew the Nemean lion and wore it as a helmet, and adopted by Alexander the Great in his portraits portraits and coins. Mithradates also adopted the lion skin to identify himself with Alexander and by extension Hercules. However upon closer examination once I got the gem home I realized that this was no lion skin but improbably, the head of a skinned bull with little horns and the legs tied around the neck with hoofs at the ends like a bow. Thinking that this might be an 18th Century carving inspired perhaps by an Ancient Greek Coin of some Hellenistic ruler who adopted a variation of the animal skin helmet, I searched my coin catalogues in vain. But not being a numismatist, my library is limited so I sent an email of the gem to a friend who is a coin and gem collector/dealer, Hadrien Rambach. He replied in minutes telling me that it was an image of Theseus wearing the skin of the bull of Marathon, and was after a gem in St. Petersburg. Thankfully the gem collection of the Hermitage is online, and I was able to find it see below.

(Image from the Hermitage website, of their gem.)
Head of Theseus, Ancient Rome.
Workshop of Hylloes, 1st Century BC to 1st Century A.D.
Cornelian, intaglio 2.7 x 2cm
Source of Entry: Collection of the Duke or Orleans, 1787

While beautiful, the St. Petersburg gem is not as finely carved as mine, the hair and animal skin are not as finely detailed, the carving of the face not as well resolved. However it is inscribed with the initials of Lorenzo de Medici, who once owned it, an incredible provenance. If this gem did not have that inscription and was brought to me, I would wonder about its antiquity given the not very accomplished carving.

A little about the subject; Theseus is the hero who is the mythological founder of Athens, and follows the example of Hercules in that he accomplished a series of exploits paralleling the labors of Hercules. Son of Aethra, a princess of a small city near Athens, he had two fathers, her husband Aegeus the king of Athens, and Poseidon, and as such Theseus had both mortal and immortal qualities. Aegeus took up with Medea when she abondoned Jason of the Argonauts, and he left Aethra in her familial kingdom with her son Theseus. He left his sandals and sword under a huge rock, telling Aethra that when their son was grown strong enough to move the rock himself, that they would prove his royal birth. When Theseus was old and strong enough, he moved the rock and took the sword and wore the sandals traveling to Athens and having adventures along the way. When he arrived at Athens, Aegeus did not recognize him, but his sorcerous wife Medea did and feared for the succession of her own son who she hoped would inherit the throne. So she convinced Aegeus to send Theseus to capture the Marathonian Bull on Crete, a terrible beast she hoped would kill him in the attempt. Of course Theseus accomplished the feat, and after sacrificing the bull is on this gem depicted wearing it as Hercules did the lion skin. One of my favorite parts of the myth is when Theseus returns to Athens and Medea recognizes who he is but his father does not, she convinces the king that this powerful youth was dangerous and serves him a cup of poisoned wine. Just as Theseus takes the cup, the father recognizes his sword and sandals, realizes this is his lost son and knocks the cup out of Theseus's hand saving him. I am not sure what happens to Medea, but rest assured, she does not die, merely flees. For her power, ruthlessness and ability to get away with things I admire her. She kills her own brothers to aid Jason's escape, kills her own children by Jason when he takes up with another princess and kills the princess and her father with a dress that bursts into flames, escapes in a chariot drawn by flying dragons, and next we see her as the wife of the King of Athens. What a fascinating mythological figure, I wonder what her real symbology and origin is.

The connoisseurship of ancient gems is very difficult, in that they were highly sought after from the Renaissance until the 20th Century, and widely imitated and emulated by some of the greatest glyptich artists who ever lived. In the early to mid 19th Century engraved and carved gems, cameos and intaglios, could be as valuable as houses to give you an idea of relative value. A contemporary engraved portrait intaglio had the same value as a painted one by Gainsborough or Romney bemoaned Lorenz Natter, (the same Natter who carved the Hostilianus gem in a former post on my blog), in his book "Traite de la methode antique de graver en pierres fines", printed in London in 1754. (According to The Romans of Seals and Engraved Gems, by Beth Benton Sutherland published my Macmillan 1965.) After the Paniatowski scandal and the doubt it created, the interest in gem engraving waned. The scandal was that his princely collection of carved gems was sold at Christie's London in 1839 as ancient, and it turned out to be that they were all commissioned by the prince, i.e., not ancient, really fakes if they were passed off as such. For the past one hundred years gem engraving has not been valued as an art form, although some exceptional older gems get high prices.

To sum up the case against this gem being ancient; the long oval of the stone and larger negative areas around the carving than most ancient gems have, and the bright hard polish of the flat areas. In favor of possibly being ancient; the carving style which is right on for ancient, and possibly the scratches and nicks on the stone's surface and edges, which seem incongruous given that the ring itself is in very good condition. The stone does sit up over the gold setting and is more exposed to damage, so that might account for the damages to it. I will just have to continue to research the gem and will relate back any findings. If not ancient it may be possible find out who engraved it, it is by one of the very best artists in the media, whatever period it was done.

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