Paris and Helen or Hecuba
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- Materials and Techniques:
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The art of engraving gemstones can be traced back to ancient Greece in the 8th century BC and earlier. Techniques passed down to the Egyptians and then to the Romans. There were major revivals of interest in engraved gems in Europe during the Byantine era, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and again in the 18th and 19th centuries. At each stage cameos and intaglios, these skillful carvings on a minute scale, were much prized and collected, sometimes as symbols of power mounted in jewelled settings, sometimes as small objects for private devotion or enjoyment. This gem is in the neo-classical style popular in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when taste in the arts echoed the subject matter and style of the Greek and Roman masters. Thousands of gems were made in this style in Italy and brought back by British Grand Tourists, who went there to visit the newly-discovered classical antiquities and archaeological sites. It once belonged to the collection of Prince Stanislas Poniatowski (1754-1833), a wealthy collector who commissioned about 2500 engraved gems and encouraged the belief that they were ancient. Many even bore the signatures of the most celebrated Greek and Roman engravers. The collection was sold in 1839 following Poniatowski's death, and later the scandal of its true background emerged and many gems subsequently changed hands for very low prices and were widely dispersed. The Poniatowski affair is often credited with causing a loss of confidence in the market for engraved gems, and the subsequent decline in the art from the mid nineteenth century onwards. Nowadays, ironically, the Poniatowski collection is of increasing interest as most of the gems were the work of a small group of neo-classical gem-engravers in Rome, including most probably the great Luigi Pichler (1773-1854),and have come to be regarded as important works of gem-engraving. The engravers of the Poniatowski gems took their subjects from Classical literature, especially the works of Homer, Virgil and Ovid. The scene on this gem is ambiguous, and has been interpretated as showing Paris being reproached by Helen. A more likely reading of it is that is shows Paris showing his infant swaddling clothes to his mother Hecuba, as proof of his identity. According to Greek myth the birth of Paris was inauspicious, foretelling disaster for Troy. Reluctantly his father King Priam ordered the herdsman Agelaus to remove the baby and kill him. Unable to do so, Agelaus left Paris to take his chance, exposed on Mount Ida in his swaddling clothes. In the event he survived, suckled by a she-bear, and grew up to fulfill the prophesy, bringing about the fall of Troy through his pursual of Helen. Here the engraver shows Paris returning as an adult and showing the familiar clothes to Hecuba, by which she recognises him.
Horizontal oval intaglio. Reddish brown translucent sard. On the left Paris, wearing a tunic, sandals and a Phrygian cap walks forward. He carries a long staff in his left hand and holds out a piece of cloth in his right hand. Seated on a stool at the right and facing him is a female figure wearing a chiton, her left foot resting on a footstool. She gestures with her left arm towards the cloth he holds. Set in a gold filigree mount with a line of black enamel.
Place of Origin
Materials and Techniques
Marks and inscriptions
Signed in Greek letters Dioskourides
Width: 32.5 mm approximate, Height: 27 mm approximate
Object history note
This gem, in its original gold Poniatowski mount, is one of eighteen intaglios owned by the Museum which come from the Poniatowski collection. These were all included in the Poniatowski sale catalogue of 1839 (Christie's sale 29 April-21 May, 1839, Catalogue of the ...collection of antique gems of the Prince Poniatowski, this gem not identified in the sale catalogue), but purchased privately and withdrawn from the sale. They were then in the collection of John Tyrrell who purchased around 1200 in total. They subsequently passed into the collection of Lord Monson. In 1853 these gems were sold by the executors of Lord Monson, along with over two hundred similar Poniatowski gems (Christie's sale 18 May, 1853, Gems from the Poniatowski Collection, this gem lot 186). Eleven were bought at that stage by the Museum, and seven were subsequently given in 1865 by Cockle Lucas.
Historical significance: Engraved gemstones of all dates were widely collected in Italy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many were brought back by British Grand Tourists, and important collections were formed.
Historical context note
Prince Stanislas Poniatowski (1754-1833) was a wealthy collector who commissioned about 2500 engraved gems and encouraged the belief that they were ancient. Many even bore the signatures of the most celebrated Greek and Roman engravers. His collection was sold in 1839 following his death, and later the scandal of its true background emerged and many gems subsequently changed hands for very low prices and were widely dispersed. The Poniatowski affair is often credited with causing a loss of confidence in the market for engraved gems, and the subsequent decline in the art from the mid nineteenth century onwards. Nowadays, ironically, the Poniatowski collection is of increasing interest as most of the gems were the work of a small group of neo-classical gem-engravers in Rome, including most probably the great Luigi Pichler (1773-1854),and have come to be regarded as important works of gem-engraving. Claudia Wagner of the Beazley archive is working on assembling online as complete a list as possible of all the Poniatowski gems, including images, and this is available to consult as a Work in Progress.
Intaglio depicting Paris and Helen or Hecuba, oval sard in gold filigree mount; Italy 1820-30
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Inventory of Art Objects Acquired in the Year 1853. In: Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, Arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol I. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868, p. 40.
The Beazley Archive (online), Gems, The Poniatowski Collection database, Ref.T752
Machell Cox, E., Victoria & Albert Museum Catalogue of Engraved Gems. London, Typescript, 1935, Part 2, Section 1, p. 177.
Catalogue des Pièrres Gravées Antiques de S.A. le Prince Stanislas Poniatowski, 1830-33, V.6.
Prendeville, James, 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., 1841, 752
Spuriously attributed to Dioskourides
Attribution note: Reddish brown translucent chalcedony. Banded growth zones can be seen, but they are not considered distinct enough to classify as 'banded agate'. J Whalley May 2009.
Gold; Enamel; Chalcedony; Gemstone; Microquartz; Sard
Paris; Helen; Hecuba
Sculpture; Myths & Legends; Jewellery