Pluto giving a sword to Peleus
- Place of origin:
- Materials and Techniques:
Engraved gemstone. Red translucent carnelian.
- Credit Line:
Given by R C Lucas
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
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 subject of this gem is unclear. It may represent a scene where the hero of Greek mythology Peleus has his sword restored to him by Pluto. Peleus, one of the Argonauts who sailed with Jason on his search for the Golden Fleece, was suspected of rape and attacked by centaurs. His sword had been hidden but was returned to him, accounts differ as to by whom, saving his life.
Horizontal oval intaglio. Red translucent carnelian. Depicting male figure at the right, bearded and naked except for a short cloak, holding a two-pronged pitch-fork. In his left hand he grasps a short sword which he is handing to a young male figure who stands at the left, naked. The younger male is, or has been, tied with a cord by his left arm to a tree behind him.
Place of Origin
Materials and Techniques
Engraved gemstone. Red translucent carnelian.
Marks and inscriptions
Spurious signature of Greek gem-engraver
Width: 3.25 cm, Height: 2.8 cm
Object history note
Ex Poniatowski Collection. Given by the British neo-classical sculptor Richard Cockle Lucas in 1865. Cockle Lucas' gift comprised twenty-two ivory carvings, twelve waxes, seventeen gems seven of which were from the Poniatowski collection, a marble group and a portrait in plaster. This gem 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 lot 969), 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 27). 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, oval carnelian, possibly depicting Pluto giving a sword to Peleus, Italy, 1820-30
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Inventory of Art Objects acquired in the Year 1865. Inventory of the Objects in the Art Division of the Museum at South Kensington, arranged According to the Dates of their Acquisition. Vol. 1. London : Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., 1868, p. 30
Machell Cox, E., Victoria & Albert Museum Catalogue of Engraved Gems. London, Typescript, 1935, Part 2, Section 1, p. 181
The Beazley Archive (online), Gems, The Poniatowski Collection database, Ref.T661
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, p. 661
Catalogue des Pièrres Gravées Antiques de S.A. le Prince Stanislas Poniatowski, 1830-33, IV.258
Spruiously attributed to Kromos
Attribution note: Red translucent chalcedony. Fracture leading from lower proper left edge. J Whalley, May 2009.
Carnelian; Gemstone; Chalcedony; Microquartz
Tree; Fork; Sword
Sculpture; Myths & Legends