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The Choice of Designs on Engraved Gems


The Choice of Designs on Engraved Gems

The designs engraved on gems reflect the fashion of their day. The principal motifs were pictorial and in the Roman period included reproductions of statues of deities, heroes, portraits, animals, mythological scenes and creatures, objects, symbols, and scenes from daily life. Deities were by far the most common, those worshipped by soldiers and merchants (Athena, Nike, Ares, and Hermes) being particularly popular. Portraits were also popular, both official and private. Many such portrait-gems have survived of Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors. Some were distributed to favoured subjects and evidently had a propaganda value. In the Roman Republic, it was considered an honour to have a portrait of a distinguished ancestor on a seal. Family ancestry also played a role in the choice of the design of a signet-ring. This can be compared to our modern rings bearing family crests or coats of arms. Julius Caesar, for instance, had on his seal an armed Venus (Venus Victrix), since he claimed descent from that goddess through Aeneas. On a different note, we are told by Clement of Alexandria that some people even had figures of their naked mistresses on their seals.

Animals were also very popular and often had a symbolic meaning. The ram's head, for instance, was an emblem of good fortune. Eagles were particularly popular with legionary soldiers. Sometimes the design of a gem cannot be readily interpreted when it involves the combination of characters or objects that have lost their meaning. Combinations of several figures, masks, parts of animals, heads of satyrs, etc., usually known as grylloi (gryllos, a misnomer, means caricature), were in great favour from the first century B. C. onwards. These were not merely fanciful but had a recognised superstitious significance. They were worn as amulets to avert the evil eye or ensure fertility and prosperity for the owner. Early Christian and Byzantine gems emphasised religious motifs, and monograms of individual names are also common.

Some stones, on account of their colour and properties, were specifically used for certain motifs. From the second century A. D. onwards, lions were very often engraved on yellow jasper, presumably to render the natural colour of the lion's mane. Bloodstone and haematite were popular stones for magical gems in Egypt. Intaglios cut on bloodstone frequently portray the sun god Helios, which is partially explained by the Greek name of the gem, heliotrope. Many amethyst or mauve glass gems with a mask of Dionysos engraved on them have survived and provide an attractive combination of the prophylactic property of the stone (protection from drunkenness) with the image of the inebriating god of wine.