Sunday, December 4, 2011

A large Gem Fragment

Dear Readers,
I recently purchased the carnelian carved gem fragment, pictured above, set in a cheap silver setting allowing it to be worn as a pendant.  I found it at an antiques show with a very nice antique dealer who I have purchased things from before.  I thought it was probably ancient but could not really understand it, but at the price I bought it for, was willing to buy it to study it.

The first challenge of the piece was attempting to discern just what is depicted.  And also, just what is this a fragment of?  It measures just over an inch in maximum length, 26 to 27mm.  It is more than 1/2 inch in thickness at the thickest point, 14mm, and tapers down to 4mm, about a 1/4 inch on the unbroken edge.  I was wondered if this is a fragment of a larger vessel or some other type of object. I could see the head of a youth and what looked like a dog looking through a tree like plant, with a bit of drapery and what looks like an arm with the hand grasping a branch.  I thought that perhaps the subject was Acteon looking through a tree at the bathing Artemis, but that didn't really jive with what is depicted here.  So I sent images of it to my pen pal friend Ittai Gradel in Copenhagen, who is a gem expert who has proved invaluable to me in the past in understanding a gem.  Within an hour I had a reply with an almost immediate identification of the subject.  Based on the youth, the animal, the tendrilly plant, and the hand and forearm grasping it with the end of a windblown cloak at the edge, Ittai  identified this as a depiction of the myth of King Lycurgus.

In the myth, Lycurgus was a king in Thrace, who was opposed to the worship of Dionysus and attacked one of his maenads, Ambrosia, who called out to Mother Earth who turned her into a vine.  Coiling around the king she held him captive, while Dionysus's other followers, here a satyr and panther, tormented him.  In one version of the myth, Ambrosia, now a vine, entwines around the king, trapping him and tearing him apart.  What is likely depicted here is the moment of his entrapment, the youth is a satyr with a panther, who is somewhat dog like but does have the short snout of a cat, and not the long one typical of ancient depictions of dogs.

This myth is known from a handful of late antique objects, the most famous of which is the Lycurgus Cup in the British Museum. This is a cup of dichroic glass, which appears to be a pea soup green in reflected light, and deep purply red in light that passes through it.  Its quite an arresting transformation, achieved by means that until recently, was not understood.

Above the cup in two views, the top in reflected light, looking very green, and below in transmitted light, looking very red.  The top image shows the king as he is entrapped in the coiling vine, below a Pan and panther below him, taunting the trapped king. For more information about the cup and its science go to:

Mosaic floor in a Roman Villa in Casale, photo taken by Yair Karelic.
The full scene is depicted in the mosaic above.  Lycurgus is shown nearly nude except for his boots and cloak over his shoulder, he wields a double headed ax, and is about to bring it down on the nude Ambrosia below him, but a Maenad behind him has tapped him on the shoulder and he turns about to see her raising her staff like Thrysus to strike him.  Ambrosia has already started to turn, her legs end in vines coiling around the King.  Dating to the 4th Century A.D., The Villa Romana del Casale is in Sicily, and has what is regarded as one of the largest and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world according to Wikipedia.

The date of the Villa and that of the Lycurgus Cup, is late, 3rd to 4th Centuries A.D., and the somewhat crude style of the gem fragment indicate that it too dates to this period.  Other than Greek vase paintings, which depict the myth differently, the Lycurgus myth is not seen until this late period, supporting the date.  The meaning or significance of the myth and why it was depicted is lost to us, and according to the great scholar Martin Henig, courtesy of  Wikipedia: "in cases such as this, we are not concerned with simple, popular paganism but with recondite knowledge. This is the sort of esoteric religion which the Emperor Julian, Symmachus, Praetextatus, Macrobius and Proclus relished. The religious thought behind these floors is probably deeper and more complex than contemporary Christianity and many of the keys to understanding it have been lost."  While Henig is speaking about mosaics in the Villa at Casale, it applies to the other mediums, such as my gem fragment.  What he is saying is that while it appears to be a straightforward illustration of a popular story, but in fact was freighted with meaning that is lost to us today.

Now that I had a handle on the subject, it became easier to see what the gem fragment depicted and to photograph it, since I now knew what to try to capture.  Below are photos taken with my new DinoLite hand held microscope which is proving to be very useful in photographing gems.

In the detail above you see the Satyr, and the head and one paw of his attendant panther beside the vines tendrils.

the detail of the other side of the fragment clearly shows the kings hand wrapped by the vine, and grasping a tendril.  The edge of his cloak can bee seen above the forearm, and the leaf on the vine does look grape like, which would be appropriate for a Dionysian themed image such as this.

What this fragment illustrates is how much can be learned even from a fragment, once you start researching it.  This gem has great scholarly interest and is a rare example from a later period of the dying art of gem engraving.  When complete, this gem must have been quite large for a gem, 3 or 4 inches across and had a domed top on which the scene was engraved.  We will never know its context, what it was intended for or set into.  But there is no question of its antiquity and its subject is now clear, giving it great interest.

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