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The Annunciation

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Italy (made)
    Venice (possibly, made)

  • Date:

    1250-1300 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Engraved gemstone

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Sculpture, Room 111, The Gilbert Bayes Gallery, case 9, shelf 3

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 cameo, which has the general aspect of a Greek Byzantine gem of the 6th century, shows how early styles persisted or were revived, in some cases after several hundred years. Despite its similarity to a documented group of Byzantine cameos of the Annunciation, certain features mark it as Italian, dating from the middle of the thirteenth century. A vase with a lily has replaced the basket of wool from which the Virgin is spinning, present in the Byzantine gems. Similarly, the naturalistic exposed left leg of the archangel strikes a later note, as does the carving of radiance above the figures.

Physical description

Vertical oval cameo. Brown, translucent milky-white and dark brown layered agate, variety sardonyx. The Virgin, haloed, facing in profile to the right and wearing a long robe, stands at the left in front of an ornate chair, her right hand raised in greeting. At the right facing her, also in profile, winged and carrying a staff, is the Angel of the Annunciation. He steps forward on his left leg, which emerges bare from the folds of his garment, and gestures in greeting with his right hand. Between them on the ground is a vase containing what is probably a lily. Above the figures are engraved heavenly rays. The angelic greeting is inscribed in Greek round the edge. Set in a simple gold mount with ring for suspension.

Place of Origin

Italy (made)
Venice (possibly, made)


1250-1300 (made)


Unknown (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Engraved gemstone

Marks and inscriptions

inscription in Greek
Hail you that are full of grace the Lord is with you


Height: 38 mm, Width: 25.5 mm

Object history note

Formerly in the collection of Bram Hertz and acquired by the Liverpool collector Joseph Mayer. This cameo was sold at Sotheby's in 1859 in the sale by Mayer of what had been the Bram Hertz collection, and acquired for £15 by Chaffers for Matthew Uzielli (1805-60). It was subsequently bought by the Museum, together with five other engraved gems, at or following the Matthew Uzielli Sale, Christie's London, April 12-20 1861, lot 1119. Matthew Uzielli was a wealthy banker, railway magnate and a celebrated collector of paintings and decorative art, for whom John Charles Robinson (the first curator of the South Kensington Museum) sometimes bought objects. Together with the Prince Consort he was the major guarantor of the 1862 International Exhibtion.

Historical significance: Robinson, in his catalogue of the Uzielli collection, significantly describes this cameo as 'Byzantine Greek work, of uncertain period'. While it has many similarities to Byzantine types of the 6th and 7th centuries, certain features mark it as later Italian work. A vase with a lily has replaced the basket of wool from which the Virgin is spinning, present in the earlier gems. Similarly, the naturalistic exposed left leg of the archangel strikes a later note, as does the radiance above the figures. Jeffrey Spier (see References), who catalogues and illustrates the group of similar Annunciation cameos, goes further with this gem, noting these and other features as a 'misunderstanding' of the Byzantine gems and suggesting that the V&A gem is a seventeenth or eighteenth century copy of specimens such as two he dates to the 6th century in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Comparisons with thirteenth century cameos, however, point to the present dating.

Descriptive line

Cameo depicting the Annunciation, oval sardonyx in gold setting; Italy, 1250-1300

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Inventory of Art Objects Acquired in the Year 1861 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. 5
Trusted, Marjorie, ed. The Making of Sculpture. The Materials and Techniques of European Sculpture. London: 2007, p. 145, pl. 274
Spier, Jeffrey. Late Antique and Early Christian Gems. Wiesbaden, 2007, p. 181, no. x120
Machell Cox, E., Victoria & Albert Museum Catalogue of Engraved Gems. London, Typescript, 1935, Part 2, Section 1, pp.104-6.
Robinson, J.C., Catalogue of the Various Works of Art forming the Collection of Matthew Uzielli, Esq. of Hanover House, Regent's Park, London, London, 1860, No. 646a
Sale catalogue Various works of art forming the collection of the late Matthew Uzielli, Christie's London, April 12-20, 1861, lot 1119.
Catalogue of the Hertz Collection, 1851, no. 220.
Catalogue of the celebrated and well-known collection of Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, Roman, Indian, Peruvian, Mexican and Chinese antiquities, formed by B. Hertz... now the property of Joseph Mayer.., Sotheby's, February 1859, lot 1824.


Sardonyx; Gold; Layered agate; Gemstone; Microquartz; Chalcedony


Gem engraving

Subjects depicted



Christianity; Jewellery; Sculpture


Sculpture Collection

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