Friday, November 23, 2012

Another rediscovered Paniatowski Gem

Amethyst Intaglio set in its Original gold and black enamel setting.
Dear Reader, it has been awhile but my recent purchase of this magnificent intaglio has inspired me post.  It is a large convex amethyst gem engraved with a scene of of Apollo and a youth, with a dying stag under a tree.  It is an illustration of the Greco-Roman myth best told by Ovid in his wonderful "Metamorphosis", which I will relate below. 
Gem seen with light shining through it.
Above in the backlit image, you can see the carving clearly.

The gem is from the notorious Poniatowski collection, this is Tyrrell 513, illustrated on the Beazley Archives by the plaster impression Tyrrell had made of it and all the Poniatowski gems he purchased. Here is the link:

The Poniatowski gems have become of great interest to me; they are beautiful examples of the gem engravers art, their subjects are wonderful, and their history is so fascinating.  It is rare that I get a chance to have objects that one knows for whom they were created, and their provenance so well.  For example this gem was published by the Prince, Catalogue des Pierres Gravees Antiques de S.A. le Prince Stanislas Poniatowski, Florence 1830-1833, no IV 62.  It was also published by its next owner, John Tyrrell, Explanatory catalogue of the proof-impressions of the antique gems possessed by the late Prince Poniatowski and now in the possession of John Tyrrell Esq., London 1841, no 513.
The full provenance goes: The collection of Prince Poniatowski, offered at auction at Christie's London, April 20 - May 21, 1839, lot 2344, withdrawn from the sale, purchased by John Tyrrell (35 Craven Street - London).  New York Art Market 2012 when it was purchased by me, its whereabouts between Tyrrell's ownership and mine is at this time, unknown. (Thanks go to Hadrien Rambach for providing me with the full provenance as it is known.)

The subject of the gem is the story of Apollo and Cyparissus, is related by Ovid as part of his retelling of the myth of Orpheus, the lead in to the story is the scene where Orpheus rests on the top of a hill, which had no trees and no shade, and as he played on his lyre and sang the shady trees moved to the spot to shelter him from the sun.  Ovid lists the different types of trees and their particular attributes and last came the Cypress, and then the telling of this story:

"With the rest of the throng came the cypress, shaped like the cones that mark the turning point on the race-course; though now a tree, it was once a boy, dearly loved by the god who strings both lyre and bow.
 This is the story. There was once a magnificent stag, sacred to the nymphs who live in the fields of Carthaea, whose branching antlers cast deep shade over its head. These antlers gleamed with gold and a necklace of precious stones, encircling the animal's silky neck, hung down over its shoulders. On its forehead swayed a silver charm, kept in place by fine leather straps, which it had worn since it was born, and pearls glistened in either ear, close by its hollow temples. This stag was quite without fear and, its natural timidity forgotten, used to visit people's houses and hold out its neck, even to strangers, to be stroked. But the person who was most attached to it was Cyparissus, the handsomest of the Cean boys. He used to lead it to fresh grazing, or to the waters of some crystal spring, and wove wreaths of different kinds of flowers to hang upon its horns. Sometimes he sat on its back, like a horseman on his horse, and gleefully guided the animal's soft mouth this way and that, by means of scarlet reins.
One summer day, at noon, when the curving arms of the shore-loving Crab were being scorched by the heat of the sun, the stag was tired, and lay down to rest on the grassy ground, finding coolness in the shade of the trees. There Cyparissus unwittingly pierced it with his keen javelin. When he saw his friend cruelly wounded and dying, the boy resolved to die himself. Phoebus (Apollo) said all he could to comfort him, chiding him and telling him that his grief should be moderate, in proportion to its cause. Still the boy groaned and begged, as a last gift from the gods, that he should be allowed to go on mourning forever. Now, as his blood drained away, by reason of his endless weeping, his limbs began to change to a greenish hue, and the hair which lately curled over his snowy brow bristled and stiffened, pointing upwards in a greaceful crest towards the starry sky. Sadly the god Apollo sighed; "I shall mourn for you," he said, "while you yourself will mourn for others, and be the constant companion of those in distress."

 Beautifully told by Ovid, this story comes to life in this gem, and is a scene not depicted in any ancient work of art, which is typical of the Poniatowski gems.  Most of the gems illustrate, in original ways that copy no other works of art, obscure stories from the myths, mostly from Ovid, which given the poetic way the story is related above is understandable, that have no parallels in ancient or even modern art of their time.  As such the Poniatowski gems are surprisingly original for a body of "fakes".  One wonders if the Prince had not created the ruse of passing them off as ancient, whether they might have had more influence on the art of their time, given their originality.
The story of the Prince and his collection I have related before:

Just to summarize, Prince Paniatowski was of the Polish royal family and chose to live in Rome in the last part of the 18th into the early 19th Century, and had a large collection of what he said were ancient gems, and those few who were permitted to see it, declared it the greatest collection of gems anyone had seen.  He published two catalogues of the gems, with elaborate descriptions, but no illustrations during his lifetime, which added to the fame of his collection.  It was sold after his death in 1839 at Christie's in London, and by then, doubts about the antiquity of the gems began to surface, and the sale was not a success.  But a John Tyrrell purchased 1600 of the gems, believing them to be ancient, and created plaster impressions of them which he distributed to document and promote them.  This particular gem is one of them, and until this time, it has been on the Oxford University online Beazley archives, as whereabouts unknown, illustrated only by the plaster cast created by Tyrrell.  Tyrrell believed in the gems antiquity until the end, summing up his thoughts thusly, that it was "not probable that a nobleman of his (the prince's) high character and honor to have asserted that which he did not believe to be true."  We will never know what Prince Poniatowski really believed, whether he was taken by gem engravers selling him invented gems as ancient, or wheter he created the ruse, but I tend to believe that the Prince knew exactly what he was doing, and his reluctance to let many people see the collection would support that.  In addition a group of sketches by the gem-engraver Giovanni Calandrelli in Berlin has come to light, illustrating the myths and scenes that were then engraved on the gems, and on the Oxford Beazley Archives, the relevant sketches are featured on the gems they were the template for.  It is pretty remarkable to be able to follow a work of art from concept to execution, something we can for many of these gems.
The gems art historical value are now being re-appraised, and thanks to Oxford attempting to put the collection back to again, we are getting a new look at them.  This gem is an example of the best of them, they don't get better, and the material is beautiful, most of the gems are carved in carnelian, and only some in amethyst.  Being in its original setting also ads to the historic value of this gem, I'm happy to have it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Size Matters, the new Statue of Juno in Boston

This magnificent statue of Juno was recently rediscovered in the Boston area, and is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It is on display oddly enough in the large arched ceilinged hall where the Egyptian Old Kingdom sculptures are.  While incongruous now, the wall label informs us that the statue will remain where she is, "as the star of our future gallery dedicated to the gods, goddesses and heroes of ancient Greece and Rome."  It seems that the Egyptian collection is going to go into the new ground level galleries where already a good portion have been put, and this will become a gallery for classical sculptures.  Given the great effort made to install this sculpture here, they had to create a steel frame around the statue, and with a crane, lift it up and drop it through the skylight in order to put it in the gallery, I'm not surprised that here Juno will remain.

The museum label proudly proclaims that this is the largest Classical sculpture in any museum in the US, standing 13 feet tall (I would guess with the head but they don't say, it currently has been taken off for conservation, and is displayed next to the body) and weighs 13,000 pounds. In fact the museum's label states that this is one of the largest sculptures found in Rome, which I found a little unbelievable.  So I did a little research, looking up the Hercules Farnese, and the Flora Farnese, two of the largest Roman sculptures I know of.  And indeed, the newly rediscovered Juno is larger than both of them.  In person, all of this means little, the effect of this sculpture is monumental; Juno here is awesome, in the true meaning of the word.  And it is as beautifully carved a Roman sculpture as exists, the quality of this sculpture is very high.  The drapery is wonderfully carved with even the creases left where the robes had been folded for storage indicated. The forms of the body are quite evident under the garments, and Juno is here matronly, of large and impressive proportions, but not at all overweight, and gives the impression of great strength and substantiality.  Given the history of this statue, it has been the ornament of gardens for centuries, it is remarkably well preserved.

The history of the sculpture is interesting, as it was recorded as being in the Villa Ludovisi in 1633, and somewhere around 1900 it was purchased by a wealthy Bostonian woman, Mary Pratt Sprague, and brought to her estate in Brooklyn known as Faulkner Farm, where it was featured in the garden. Despite being exposed to the elements for centuries, the sculpture is crisp and relatively well preserved.  I am glad however that Juno is now safely inside a great museum where she can be seen by the public. 
 Here you see the statue of Juno in what is currently the Old Kingdom Egyptian Hall.  You get a sense of her scale in relation to the other sculptures and how she dominates the hall.

 Another view showing the beautifully carved drapery and the way it molds to the form of the body underneath.
 The statue with its head displayed separately.  The head is pretty good as well, although it seems more weathered than the body.

View of the back, which while not as well carved as the front as in antiquity it was intended to be seen from the front, it is still finished.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Face of Glory

Jade belt buckle, China, Han Dynasty, Length: 3 1/8 inches.

I recently purchased two exceptional jade belt pieces, which feature monster faces straight from your worst night mares.  Incredible quality, beautifully carved with incised surface decoration, they represent the best of Chinese archaic jade carving.  While the leading expert dates them the the Yuan, Ming period, 14th to 16th Century, another scholar, and myself, see them as Han Dynasty, somewhere before 0 B.C., or just after.  The Han Dynasty lasted for 400 years, from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. with an interregnum at about from 9 to 23 A.D. when a regent took power as emperor, Wang Mang. Later jades, just do not have the quality and intensity you find in Archaic jades, which era ends with the Han Dynasty.  On the surface of both are incised lines of a type you find starting in the Eastern Chou through the Han Dynasty, but not after.  So to my mind, these are Han Dynasty.

Jade belt buckle, China, Han Dynasty, Length: 3 inches.

While apotropaic, intended to ward of evil, much as the Medusa head did for Athena, these heads brought to mind a story told in a book I've been reading and re-reading, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, by Heinrich Zimmer.  The book is pure poetry and so full of information that you cannot absorb its wisdom in one read.  I'll recount the tale as Zimmer wrote it and let the reader see if it fits the images above:

"There was once a great titan king called Jalandhara. By virtue of extraordinary austerities he had accumulated to himself irresistible powers.  Equipped with these, he had gone forth against the gods of all the created spheres, and, unseating them, had established his new order.  His humiliating government was tyrannical, wasteful, careless of the traditional laws of the universe, wicked and utterly selfish. In a tremendous and ultimate excess of pride, Jalandhara sent a messenger-demon to challenge and humble the High God himself, Shiva the creator, sustainer, and destroyer of the world.
.......This Rahu, then, was the demon sent by Jalandhara to humiliate the High God. It was at this time that Shiva was contemplating marrying his love, the Goddess Shakti, in the form of Parvati, the beautiful moon-like daughter of the mountain king. .... The challenge brought by the messenger, Rahu, was that Shiva should give up his shining jewel of a bride, "the Fairest Maiden in all of the Worlds," and without further ado turn her over to the new master of existence, the titan tyrant, Jalandhara.
The moment Rahu tendered Jalandhara's demand that the Goddess should be delivered to him - The Shakti of the universe to become the tyrant's principal queen - Shiva countered the colossal challenge. From the spot between his two eyebrows - the spot called "The Lotus of Command", where the center of enlightenment is located and the spiritual eye of the advanced seer is opened - the god let fly a terrific burst of power, which explosion immediately took the physical shape of a horrendous, lion-headed demon. The alarming body of the monster was lean and emaciated, giving notice of insatiable hunger, yet its strength was resilient and obviously irresistible. The apparition's throat roared like thunder; the eyes burnt like fire; the mane, disheveled, spread far and wide into space.
Rahu, was aghast.
Rahu, the messenger, was adept, however, in the techniques of supernatural power-politics. When the incarnate burst-of-wrath made a rush at him, he replied with the only possible remaining move: he took refuge in the all-protecting fatherhood and benevolence of the Almighty, Shiva himself. This created a new and very difficult situation; for the god immediately bade the monster spare the petitioner, and the half-lion was left with a painful hunger but no proper food on which to feast it. The creature asked the god to assign some victim on which the torment might be appeased. 
(In Indian mythology, from the Vedas down, this power-principle is constantly reiterated: whenever a demon, by command of a god, is forced, for one reason or another, to release its legitimate prey, some substitute must be provided...)
Shiva was equal to the occasion, he suggested that the monster should feed on the flesh of his own feet and hands. Forthwith, to this incredible banquet that incredible incarnation of blind voraciousness proceeded. Ravaged by its congenital hunger, it ate and ate. And having devoured not only its feet and hands, but its arms and legs as well, it was still unable to stop. The teeth went through its own belly and chest and neck, until only the face remained. .......
Shiva watched silently, but with supreme delight, the bloodcurdling, nightmarish procedure, and then, gratified by the vivid manifestation of the self-consuming power of his own substance, he smiled upon that creature of his wrath-which had reduced its own body, joint by joint, to the nothingness of only a face - and benignantly declared: "You will be known, henceforth, as "Face of Glory", and I ordain that you shall abide forever at my door.  Whoever neglects to worship you shall never win my grace.

In these monster faces I see the self devouring beast, reduced to its head, hungry still and ready to eat those that endanger the one wearing it.  Unfortunately, to my mind, Zimmer never tells the reader what becomes of the evil tyrant Jalandhara.  Rahu, his messenger is forgiven, but what became of the king?  One hopes that he set "Face of Glory" after him. 

You will find such monster faces throughout Chinese Buddhist sculpture, adorning a Bodhisattva, or a shrine, protecting the divine figures.

The colossal statue above, in the Metropolitan Museum, is from the Northern Zhou Dynasty, dating to about 580 A.D., and stands 4.2 meters, 13 feet 9 inches tall.  It's an amazing statue, and its measurements don't begin to convey how huge it seems when one is front of it. The detail relevant to this post however, is the central element of its elaborate jeweled harness, the demon mask.  Here the horrible monster protects the bodhisattva, in this case thought to be Kuanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion.

 Above is a detail of a shrine from the Northern Qi Dynasty, 550-577 A.D., where you see the monster face over the door with floral elements coming out of its mouth.  Another benevolent use of the monster.  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A lost Poniatowski Gem

Gem with scene of the drunk Silenus on an ass, lead by Dionysus. Note the Greek signature below the ground line.
Dear Readers,

Again, it has been a long time since I last posted.  But I just purchased this beautiful intaglio, and it is another discovery.  It was at an eclectic jewelry store in NYC, and despite its humble silver setting, suspended from a strand of tiny garnet beads and pearls, and broken condition, I recognized right away the quality of the carving.  I thought it was most likely a Poniatowski gem, but also, of course, held out hope that it might be ancient.  The price was reasonable, evidence that the seller did not recognize what they had, always a good thing for me, and I committed to purchase it even though I did not have the money at that moment.  I was finally I was able to pay for it and just received it yesterday.  I took photographs and emailed them to my email friend, Ittai Gradel, who is extremely knowledgeable about ancient gems.

I am sure I've told the story of Prince Poniatowski, so if so forgive me for recapping it.  Prince Poniatowski (1754-1833) was a Polish prince, living in Rome, who was famous for his collection of engraved gems, numbering somewhere around 2,500.  He was also infamously guarded and hardly anyone was allowed to see his collection so it was known by repute.  He himself published a catalog of his gems in 1830, and 1833.  After his death the collection was sold by Christie's London in 1839.  Only later were they recognized as not being ancient, and indeed it is generally now believed that the entire collection was made of gems commissioned by the Prince from the most talented gem engravers of the day.  There are features that all of them have in common;  they tend to be large elongated ovals, with a strong ground line and illustrate mythological scenes that until then, were unknown in ancient art and, almost all have Greek signatures.  Often the images include multiple figures and have strong diagonals in their composition.  Another feature of neo-Classical gems in general and shared by these, is that they have a lot of empty space, which ancient gems generally do not have, the entire field is filled.  However the airier composition of the neo-Classical gems allowed for clearer illustration of the myths.

This gem has a more generic Dionysiac scene, Silenus on an ass (donkey) drunk and supported by a satyr, the ass is lead by the god Dionysus himself brandishing a thrysos over his head as if he was going to beat the poor ass.  The carving is remarkably unfussy but well done, and reminds me very much of ancient engravings, but the highly visible signature, which Ittai recognized as by that of Pemallios, is known from 11 examples from the Poniatowski collection in the Beazley archives at Oxford.  I went to the website and voila, there is an image of a plaster impression of my gem!  It had been purchased by John Tyrrell, Esq., who purchased many of the Poniatowski gems at the Christie's sale, and had impressions taken of them and sent to those interested in gems.  That the Beazley Archives only has an image of the impression means that the original cornelian gem is lost to scholarship.  Not anymore, I have found it and have sent photos to the Beazley Archives so that they now have another rediscovered gem to add. 

One of the best quotes I've found relating to the Poniatowski gems is that of Ernst Heinrich Toelken, who was the director of the Antiquarium in Berlin, who in 1832 was shown a set of plaster impressions of some of the Poniatowski gems. He said, "The impressions are indeed the most beautiful you can expect to see in art."  But he became suspicious of the antiquity of the gems because of the signatures, all of engravers known from the Greek and Roman world working centuries apart, yet the gems were all of a uniform style, which would be impossible. "Thus, we have here,--and I am extremely sorry to give this hard judgement!-- in works and words a scientific deceit of such dimensions never seen in art history before."

Some have suggested that Poniatowski purchased the gems from unscrupulous sources passing new gems off as ancient, but it is more likely, that he commissioned the gems himself, and presenting them as ancient to the world.  Regardless it was one of greatest scandals in art history, and set back the collecting of gems, effectively ending their desirability.  Only now are these gems being re-appraised, mostly because, in addition to their beauty and mastery, but because they are so original.  None copy any other art in any other media, they illustrate myths and ancient tales in novel ways.  They are now recognized as worthy works of art in their own right, deserving of study.

Different lighting to better show the scene.

The image above shows the beautiful engraving of the ass, which even has genitals as do all the figures, which is true to the ancient prototypes.  However the scene has much more space between the two figures on either side than any ancient gem would have had.  But an attempt was made to fool, the surface has wear on it as if it were ancient, and the style is remarkably like that on ancient gems.   I generally think of the 18th Century gem engravers as being more fussy than the ancient ones, although that is not always true, no one ever engraved better than the famous ancient Greek gem engraver, Gnaios for example.  But they got pretty good in the 18th Century.  This Pemallios is to my eye, a remarkably good gem carver.

T276 from the Beazley Archives, Oxford

The above is from the Beazley Archive website, the impression is part of the Tyrrell collection of impressions taken from the gems he purchased.  It shows the gem before it was broken, so God only knows where my gem has been for two centuries.  The gem was listed in Catalogue des pierres graves antiques de S.A. le Prince Stansislas Poniatowski, 1830 and 1833, II.58, and also in the catalogue of the impressions of the antique gems in the collection of John Tyrell, Esq., 1841, number 276

The quality of the gem can be seen in the detail photos taken with my digital microscope.

detail of Dionysus brandishing his Thyrsos. Note the beautiful carving and his beauty.

The poor,, long suffering Ass, so well carved.

The drunk Selinus supported by his Satyr companion.

The signature in Greek: PEMALLIOY, i.e. Greek genetive of Pemallios (thank you Ittai)