Hercules carrying the Cretan Bull thumbnail 1
Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Sculpture, Room 111, The Gilbert Bayes Gallery

Hercules carrying the Cretan Bull

Cameo
1740-1770 (made)
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

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. Subjects from Greek mythology were popular, and certain scenes were often portrayed using versions of the same stock images. Hercules (or Heracles, to use his Greek name), the hero and personification of physical strength and courage, was one of the most popular figures in classical and later art. He is often portrayed with a club, and a lion's skin, and the paws of the lion skin can just be seen hanging down behind him in this cameo. His twelve labours, in which he triumphed against huge odds, attest to his superhuman strength and endurance. They were undertaken at the order of the Delphic oracle as penance for slaying his own children in a fit of madness, and he performed one a year for twelve years in service to King Eurystheus. For his seventh labour Hercules was sent to Crete to capture the mad, fire-breathing bull of king Minos. He succeeded, and bore it back to Greece.


object details
Categories
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Engraved gemstone set in gold ring; Opaque white, light brown and grey layered agate.
Brief Description
Cameo, oval layered agate, depicting Hercules carrying the Cretan bull, Italy, 1740-70
Physical Description
Vertical oval cameo. Depicting Hercules carrying the Cretan bull. Hercules is shown naked, with short curling hair. He strides to the right, with the bull upside-down over his left shoulder, its head hanging down in front of him, and its tail behind.
Dimensions
  • Height: 35mm
  • Width: 25.5mm
Style
Credit line
Bequeathed by the Rev. Chauncey Hare Townshend
Object history
This gem was part of the collection of the Reverend Chauncy Hare Townshend (1798-1868), who bequeathed his important collection to the South Kensington Museum in 1869. Although the gemstone collection is not as comprehensive as that found at the Natural History Museum in London, it is of particular historic interest as its formation pre-dates the development of many synthetic stones and artificial enhancements. All the stones were mounted as rings before they came to the Museum. Some are held in the Sculpture Section, other more elaborately mounted ones in the Metalwork Section.



As well as being a clergyman, collector and dillettante, the Reverend Townshend wrote poetry. He met Robert Southey in 1815 and through him the Wordsworths, the Coleridges and John Clare. He was a friend of Charles Dickens and dedicatee of his novel 'Great Expectations'.
Historical context
Engraved gemstones based on classical models were widely produced and collected in Italy in the eighteenth century. Many were brought back by British Grand Tourists, and important collections were formed.
Subjects depicted
Summary
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. Subjects from Greek mythology were popular, and certain scenes were often portrayed using versions of the same stock images. Hercules (or Heracles, to use his Greek name), the hero and personification of physical strength and courage, was one of the most popular figures in classical and later art. He is often portrayed with a club, and a lion's skin, and the paws of the lion skin can just be seen hanging down behind him in this cameo. His twelve labours, in which he triumphed against huge odds, attest to his superhuman strength and endurance. They were undertaken at the order of the Delphic oracle as penance for slaying his own children in a fit of madness, and he performed one a year for twelve years in service to King Eurystheus. For his seventh labour Hercules was sent to Crete to capture the mad, fire-breathing bull of king Minos. He succeeded, and bore it back to Greece.
Bibliographic References
  • List of Objects in the Art Division, South Kensington, Acquired During the Year 1869, Arranged According to the Dates of Acquisition. London: Printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for H.M.S.O., p. 126
  • Machell Cox, E., Victoria & Albert Museum Catalogue of Engraved Gems. London, Typescript, 1935, Part 2, Section I, p. 160
  • Tableaux, statues, bas-reliefs et camees de la Galerie de Florence et du Palais Pitti / dessines par M. Wicar...; et graves sous la direction de M. Lacombe...; avec les explicatios par M. Mongez, Paris 1789-1807
Collection
Accession Number
1807-1869

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record createdOctober 18, 2004
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