Ancient Images

July 1999

From the Vault

Ancient Images

Carved mythological figures imbue gemstones with more meaning

Engraved gems are like time capsules in miniature – images frozen in stone that capture our attention and fire our imaginations. While other gems, no matter how beautiful, are frequently recut to suit contemporary taste, engraved gems generally escape this fate. The mystical images carved on their surfaces demand respect and have been collected reverently by people of wealth and power throughout time.

The earliest engraved gemstones were cylinder seals, which appeared in Mesopotamia during the 4th millennium B.C. Elongated cylinders, usually 1-2-in. long, engraved all around with animals and human figures were rolled across damp clay to produce a pattern unique to its owner, a "signature" seal. These early signatures predate handwriting. The Egyptian scarab, carved to resemble a beetle with its flat underside engraved with a seal, was followed by the intaglio, a flat gem with the image carved into its surface, and finally by the cameo with its image carved in relief above the planar surface.

Onward to Realism
Through the centuries, engraved gems evolved, the subjects becoming more realistic in appearance and the choice of gem relating more to the theme. Common in the ancient world, they enjoyed renewed favor during the Renaissance. Engraved gems had other peaks of popularity during the 19th century and again today. During each period, artists engraved subjects that had popular appeal. Ancient gems often portrayed deities or myths that projected various attributes, as do the intaglios pictured here, two from antiquity and one from the 19th century.

An engraved oval carnelian ring bears the image of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. She can be identified by the shield at her side. Here she proffers a tiny Nike, or winged victory, on the extended palm of her hand. This image of certain success invests the wearer with the confidence to overcome all obstacles. The choice of dark red carnelian for this intaglio suggests strength and vitality, giving additional power to the image depicted.

The amethyst is engraved with the image of Aurora, goddess of dawn, driving her horse-drawn chariot across the sky. The stars in the night sky before her wink. Pale lavender quartz is perfect to intimate the beautiful dawn, bringing hope and expectations for the new day, suggesting a fresh start in life, the beginning of a new enterprise.

Demand Rises
Europeans in the 19th century were obsessed with the past, which they interpreted imaginatively to suit Romantic ideals. Engraved gems, especially those from antiquity, were eagerly collected and worn in jewelry. To satisfy the heavy demand, many new stones were carved. The creamy yellow chalcedony shown here depicts Venus, goddess of love. Venus points her finger at a weeping Cupid, who has been stung by bees defending their honey. Venus tells him this is what his arrows of love feel like to others. Cupid feels the pain that comes with love, pain that often lasts longer than the pleasure. Simply carved in the classical manner, the theme is echoed by the golden color of the chalcedony imitating the mellow sweetness of honey.

Mysterious and compelling, these gems still speak to us, giving us a link with past civilizations. Through the centuries, their motifs of success, hope and love continue to have meaning for the modern world, ensuring their survival in the future.

The carnelian is 4th century Roman, the amethyst Aurora is 1st or 2nd century Roman and the chalcedony Venus and Cupid is early 19th century European. Intaglios courtesy of David Humphrey, Pacific Palisades, CA.

– by Elise B. Misiorowski

Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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