Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Crowned Bodhisattva Head and its type.

I recently acquired the exceptional Chinese Northern Qi head of a Crowned Bodhisattva, seen in the images below.  It is large, just over life sized, intact as far as the head itself goes, with only a bit of the top of the crown missing and the side ribbons. In addition to being relatively intact the surfaces are very well preserved with extensive remains of the gold leaf preserved along with polychromy.  The lips preserve their original carmine red, and bits of color remain on the crown.  It is a magnificent head, really majestic.  However the reason the head is compelling to me is that it is of a type known from other versions, which is a rarity in Chinese Buddhist sculptures of this time.  While all are similar, no two are the same in their details, except for this particular type.

Head of a Bodhisattva, Limestone, Height: 15 inches

Head of a Bodhisattva wearing a crown.
China, Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D.

Side view of Head of a Bodhisattva, Limestone, Height: 15 inches.
In my studies of Chinese Buddhist sculpture, one is confronted repeatedly with this (see below) spectacular Bodhisattva wearing a crown, with a small Buddha centrally placed.  This indicates it is Kuanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion.  Singularly superb in its carving, conception and execution, it stands apart from the group of extraordinary sculptures discovered in Qingzhou in 1996, and subsequently made famous by a traveling exhibition and catalogue, "The Return of the Buddha", in 2002.  It was featured in one of the first publications of the find in 2001 on the cover of the magazine, Arts of Asia, Volume 31, number 1. 



Bodhisattva found in the Qingzhou horde, Limestone, Height: 136cm.
 Standing Bodhisattva
China, Northern Qi Dynasty, 550 - 577 A.D.

Detail showing the head of the Qingzhou Bodhisattva



The beautiful Bodhisattva above (photos taken from the Asian Newspapers online article http://asianartnewspaper.com/article/lost-buddhas-chinese-buddhist-sculpture-qingzhou) is one of the most famous of the sculptures found in the horde.  And justly so as you can see in the photos above.  However, as remarkable as it is in itself, evidently either it, or a lost original, inspired copies to be made of it, something I have not seen before in Chinese Buddhist sculpture.  The first time I encountered one, it was a smaller version, that duplicates the details of the jewelry, robes and crown exactly, but the face is quite different. (see below)

Bodhisattva, Limestone, Height: 25 inches.
Standing Bodhisattva
China, Northern Qi Dynasty 550 - 577 A.D.

Head of the Bodhisattva above.
Another view of the head of the Bodhisattva
As you can see above, the smaller version of the Bodhisattva type copies exactly, as far as I can tell, the jewelry, robes and crown of the Qingzhou sculpture.  I bought the smaller one without realizing just how close it was to it, but recognizing that it belonged to that type of adorned Bodhisattva.  I was startled when I was studying photos of the Qingzhou sculpture to see just how closely the one I had followed it.  And yet the faces are quite different, indicating that they are not by the same sculptor, and perhaps even separated in time.  The question is, was the Qingzhou Bodhisattva famous and admired in its own time, or was there yet another example that it is another copy of.  That is something we may never know. 

The head I just acquired indicates that there was yet at least one more version, the one the head came from, which would have been just over life sized, and a very impressive sculpture.  Interestingly, the crown, which is almost identical to the Qingzhou example, is not exactly so.  On either side of the central seated small Buddha on the Qingzhou sculpture, is a stylized lotus leaf seen from the side, however in the newly acquired head, the Buddha is framed by a jewel, with a spray of pearls on either side, the rest of the crown almost exactly parallels the Qingzhou type.  The face is much more related to the Qingzhou type, a bit bigger and less attenuated, unlike the small version where it is totally different.  The lips in particular has almost the same cupid bow upper lip that the Qingzhou one does.  In addition the expressions are very similar, very removed and distant in deep meditation.  The smaller one just has a different feel to its face, even though it too is in deep meditation.

The whole field of early Chinese Buddhist sculpture is still only beginning to be processed by scholars, since before the Qingzhou horde, very few examples survived, now many examples have come to light, reached the market, but are still relatively unknown to them.  I wonder how many other "types" we will find, where there are multiple examples so similar to each other as the three above. 

A little bit about Bodhisattvas.  The Buddha attained enlightenment and nirvana, leaving the earthly realm merging into the universal essence.  In early Chinese Buddhist sculpture, the Buddha is distinguished by the lack or jewelry and adornment, in the simple robes of a monk.  It is his pure presence that demands your attention, while Bodhisattvas are richly clothed and adorned often with heavy extravagant jewelry.  The Qingzhou example is a particulary richly decorated one.  A Bodhisattva is a being who has attained enlightenment, but has chosen not to go to Nirvana, but to stay behind to help other sentient beings achieve enlightenment.  One story about Kuanyin is that on the brink of Nirvana, he heard the distressed voices of all creation, and in compassion, turned around to stay behind to help other beings on the road to spiritual perfection. Perhaps as recompense for not going to Nirvana, Bodhisattvas are depicted adorned in kingly jewelry and robes.  The richness of their garb may also symbolize their spiritual wealth, which is limitless.  Almost all Bodhisattvas are crowned, but the Qingzhou type has a distinctive crown, so I am referring to them as a crowned Bodhisattva.  The central small seated Buddha in the crown is an attribute of Kuanyin, so it may well be the type is meant to depict him.  In Indian sculpture, which was the source for Buddhism, Bodhisattvas are richly adorned, with jewelry.  But the Chinese examples are often far more richly adorned then the Indian ones.  The type above is one of the most beautiful in early Chinese Buddhist sculpture, I'm lucky to have found this beautiful head of one.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Another Poniatowski gem rediscovered

It has been a while since I last posted to my blog.  So here I will catch up with a few new posts, on more Poniatowski gems that I have purchased, starting with this beauty, which was lost, and now is found.
Engraved Carnelian in gold swivel setting.
Above is the gem, and engraved carnelian agate, here shown with the light going through it, allowing one to see the masterful engraving, an three dimensional image done in reverse, intaglio.  What we see is a young serious woman, hair drawn back into a simple bun, indication of robes at the bottom of her neck, and a large inscription along the left side, reading "POLLA ARGENTARIA".

Here you see the gem in its setting, in reflected light.

Above is the gem seen in its setting, with the light reflecting off the surface.  What isn't evident from this image is that the surface shows some minor wear with some small scratches.  This becomes important in its identification.

The research of this gem took several stages.  Its first rate quality indicated to me that I may well find it somewhere, and be able to identify its engraver even.  First I went to Lippold's Gemmen und Kameend des Altertums et der Neuzeit, published in 1922.  One reason it is such a great resource is to be found it its title, Gems and Cameos from Antiquity to the New Age, roughly translated, the literal German is more poetic, referring to antiquity as the High Period, i.e., superior, with which I would agree.  Lippold illustrates hundreds of the more admired gems both from the ancient periods to modern gems, as collectors in the 19th Century collected and were interested in the best of both times.  In Lippold I found the nearly identical female bust, which is signed by L. (Luigi) Pichler, one of the greatest gem engravers from the late 18th into the early 19th Century.

From Lippold, the Pichler gem.
The images on these two gems are nearly identical, with minor differences in the drapery at the bottom of the neck and the profile, but seem to be by the same hand they are so close.

The next phase of my research was to google the name engraved on the gem, Polla Argentaria, who turns out was the wife of Lucan, the well known poet who lived during the Julio Claudian period and had the patronage of Nero, and as typical in this period, lost favor, was discovered to have subsequently plotted against the emperor and was force to commit suicide, which he did by opening a vein and as he bled to death, he recited poetry.  He was only 25, and had accomplished a lot in his short life.  Nothing is known about Polla Argentaria but that she was his wife, then widow.  No ancient depictions of her exist, or are known.

Then of course my mind wandered to the Poniatowski gems, as there are many gems of famous Romans, which because there are no ancient representations of subjects, are identified, sometimes with cryptic initials, by rather large inscriptions. The inscriptions on the known and illustrated portrait gems in the Poniatowski collection matched the style of the inscription on mine.  Looking up Polla Argentaria in the Beazley Archives Poniatowski gem section, I found that indeed, there was a gem depicting her in the collection, but it had no impression, no illustration of what it looked like.  But, given the very quality of this gem, the slightly roughed up surface, matching the other gems in the collection, the style of the inscription and that it depicts an obscure but literary figure in Roman history, I thought, you know what, this may the be the lost gem cataloged.  I sent images to Clauda Wagner, who is managing the Beazley Archives database and is perhaps the person who knows the most about the Poniatowski collection, and she confirmed that yes, it is the Poniatowski gem on the website, which until I made the connection, had been lost to scholarship. 

This gem is the 5th re-discovery I've made of gems listed as lost on the Beazley Archives, 2 from the Marlborough collection and now 3 Poniatowski gems.  I intend to keep looking, and hopefully I will make more rescues of lost gems from these great collections.
  

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:

http://www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/XDB/ASP/recordDetails.asp?id=A8609B33-4BA7-4A5D-B4AC-26118857ACC3

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:
 http://tomswope.blogspot.com/2012/05/lost-poniatowski-gem.html

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)



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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lycurgus_Cup


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.