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The Constanza Carnelian and the Development of
Crucifixion Iconography in Late Antiquity
Felicity Harley-McGowan
In 1895, a small intaglio held in a private collection in London
came to the attention of the archaeologist Cecil HarcourtSmith (1859–1944), then working at the British Museum in the
Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities. The transverse
oval carnelian preserved what Smith argued was the earliest
extant representation of the Crucifixion (Pl. 1).1 He thus
brought it to the attention of his colleague, Sir Augustus
Wollaston Franks (1826–97), then Keeper of British and
Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography, who subsequently
purchased the intaglio and presented it to the British Museum
in the same year.2
In his account of the gem’s provenance, Smith reported that
it was shown to him as one in a group of 30 or 40 gems
reputedly found on a beach at Constanza, Romania. Classifying
this group as Roman, and dating the gems collectively from
between the 1st to the 3rd century ad, he remarked that ‘the
only one of real importance’ was that which bore the standard
Early Christian formula IXΘYC (the Greek word for ‘fish’ but
also used as an acrostic to signify ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God,
Saviour’)3, with an image of the Crucifixion engraved on its
obverse. Smith proposed a production date for this gem of
around the 2nd/3rd century ad, reasoning that this accorded
with the general style, provenance and date of the gems in the
group as a whole. In addition, following a careful examination
of iconographic evidence for the representation of the
Crucifixion before the 6th century ad, he concluded that with
the exception of a graffito excavated on the Palatine hill in
Rome, taken to be 2nd century ad and discussed further below,
the gem preserved a composition of the subject that was earlier
than other known evidence.
Smith’s placement of the Crucifixion gem from Constanza
at an early point in the development of Crucifixion iconography
(such as it can be documented by a very small body of extant
evidence) was acute, especially given the general reticence to
incorporate the evidence of engraved gems into the study of
Early Christian art. With a much enlarged knowledge and thus
clearer understanding of the production of Christian engraved
gems in Late Antiquity, it can now be contended with
confidence that the iconography, in conjunction with the
inscription, the form of the letters and carving style, indicate
an early or mid-4th-century ad date of production in the
eastern part of the Roman Empire.4 Focusing on the image, this
paper will demonstrate the ways in which the iconography can
be seen to clarify the gem’s date and thereby reaffirm the
importance originally bestowed on it by Smith in his
assessment of the history of the representation of the
Crucifixion in Christian art.5
Crucifixion Iconography and Early Christian gems
Beneath the acrostic, the design of the Constanza gem is
dominated by the figure of a man presented in rigid frontality
214 | “Intelligible Beauty”

against the upright shaft of a tau cross, with his arms shown
outstretched and tied at the wrists to the patibulum or cross
bar. Given the inscription and specific iconographic features
outlined below, the identity of the man is without question:
Jesus. While his head and feet are turned to the viewer’s right
(and so shown in rather flat, two dimensional profile), some
modelling is attempted by the carver to indicate Jesus’
anatomy. This is most notable in the rendering of the knees, the
demarcation of the waist and abdomen in the torso, along with
the shaping of the shoulders and the neckline. The sensitivity
shown in the articulation of these physical features makes it
clear that although not explicit, the figure is also
unambiguously nude. This fact is underscored by the carver’s
very careful attempt to clothe the 12 male figures represented
half the size of Jesus and shown processing toward him, six on
either side. Diagonal cuts made at regular intervals across their
upright bodies indicate that they wear close-fitting mantles, or
pallia. As will be maintained here, in comparison with
established iconographic formulae for the depiction of the
Apostles either side of Jesus in the 4th century ad, a version of
which is directly replicated on this gem, the figures are clearly
representative of the 12 Apostles.
The use of semi-precious stones engraved with images or
monograms, and used as seals in finger-rings, was an integral
part of daily life through to the 3rd century ad when the use of
gems as seals began to diminish. Within this cultural and
economic context, Christianity struggled with a variety of
philosophical and theological issues pertaining to the
fundamental question of adornment of the body, as well as
with the thorny question of image-use upon such personal
items as jewellery. On facing the first issue, they were not
alone: in matters relating to clothing, physical embellishment
and even care of the body, males and females in the Roman

Plate 1 Constanza gem. Carnelian, flat, 13.5 x 10.5mm. Syria (?), mid-4th
century AD. Said to have been found in Constanza, Romania. London, British
Museum, PE 1895,1113.1

The Constanza Carnelian and the Development of Crucifixion Iconography in Late Antiquity
world negotiated a tenuous balance between the observation of
moral strictures, the necessary practicalities of daily life, and
the general pursuit of fashion. On facing the second issue,
Christians were in distinctively hazardous territory.
Clement of Alexandria (c. ad 150–c. ad 215) provides clear
evidence that as early as the 2nd century ad, Christians had to
navigate their way very carefully through the already
established use of images to decorate finger-rings. In his oftcited Paedagogus, he indicates a small range of images
appropriate for Christian use upon rings. This includes a dove,
a fish, a ship in sail, a musical lyre, a ship’s anchor, and a
fisherman (Paed. 3.59).6 For although Clement is against luxury
and the ornamentation of the body (it is the Christian soul, he
writes, that is to be decorated with the ornament of goodness,
Paed. 2.3), he is explicit in permitting one finger-ring of gold.
For a woman, this ring is to be worn in the fulfilment of
domestic tasks only, namely protecting household goods (Paed.
3.57). For a man, this is to be worn at the base of the little finger
so that his hand is free to conduct business (Paed 3.58–9).
Hence the seal, or signet ring, is expressly permitted for
security purposes only, both commercial and domestic – that
is, in order to mark ownership of property.
When gems produced specifically for Christian clients first
began to appear in the eastern Mediterranean – soon after
Clement’s time, around the middle of the 3rd century ad – they
are largely identical to other gems produced at the period in
shape, material (usually carnelian, agate or jasper) and
engraving style. The key features that distinguish them as
Christian are the inscriptions they carry, and the symbols they
bear, which are appropriate to Christian use and accord
directly with Clement’s specifications.7 Among the many extant
examples attesting to the use of these symbols in conjunction
with Christian inscriptions, the iconography of the Constanza
gem is highly unusual relative to Clement’s small catalogue of
approved images. Nonetheless, as Smith observed, a second
known example, almost identical in size, shape and design to
the Constanza gem, indicates that although remarkable, the
design was not a ‘one-off’.
Included by Raffaele Garrucci in his comprehensive Storia
dell’ arte cristiana nei primi otto secoli della chiesa, this second
example was purchased in Rome by the English collector, the
Rev. George Frederick Nott (1767–1841).8 Although its
whereabouts are presently unknown, a plaster impression
made in the 19th century (Pl. 2) testifies that the gem was
fractionally larger and more elongated in shape than the
Constanza gem, and that the pattern of a crucified Jesus amid
12 Apostles appeared with only minor variations. In examining

Plate 2 Nott Gem. Plaster cast, original: carnelian, slightly convex, c. 19 x
14mm. Syria (?), mid-4th century AD

the cast, these differences are most notable with respect to the
figure of Jesus, who at the central axis of the composition is
depicted on a similar scale to the Apostles but is shown on a
column, physically elevated above them, and crowned with a
nimbus. A further difference is the depiction of the two
Apostles to either side of Jesus, who are shown raising their
hands to touch the base of his cross. These pictorial variations
aside, as in the case of the Constanza gem, the design is
accompanied by a Greek version of Jesus’ name: ehco
x-pect-oc, with the final two letters of Christos split either side
of a lamb, placed strategically below the cross.9 As will be
discussed below, an early to mid-4th century ad date is
probable for this gem; and specifically, the nimbus indicates a
date no earlier than the Constantinian period, before which
time nimbi are unlikely to have been used in a Christian
The inscriptions on both the Constanza and Nott gems are
positive (being engraved directly onto the stone so that they
were intended to be read on the face of the gem by the wearer)
rather than negative (intended to be read in impression). In
this they follow what appears to be a characteristic of gems
engraved in Late Antiquity and as broadly symptomatic of the
general decline in skill that is witnessed prior to this period.11
The conjunction of the name of Jesus with Christian
iconography is, as noted above, a further feature common
amongst Early Christian gems. To better understand the
significance of the union of Jesus’ name with an image of his
Crucifixion in what must be seen as an avowedly Christian
context, it is necessary to examine both components of the
design in turn.
The invocation of the name of Jesus from the New
Testament period through to the time of Origen has been well
documented;12 yet in the context of this discussion it is
interesting to note that by the 2nd century ad, the name was
expanded by explicit references to Christ’s death. Justin Martyr
writes that many demoniacs were exorcised by Christians ‘in
the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius
Pilate’ (2 Apology 6.6); and his almost formulaic use of this
phrase, ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’ emerges with particular
prominence in his Dialogue with Trypho (Dial. 30.3; 76.6; 85.2).
The phrase was employed by Irenaeus (Adversus haereses
2.49.3, and Epideixis, 97), and was possibly known by Origen
(Contra Celsum 1.6), suggesting a strong persistence of the
belief amongst Christians that such references enhanced the
perceived power resident in the name of Jesus itself. This belief
was already current in the Apostolic era, as witnessed in such
acts as Peter’s healing of a cripple in the name of Jesus Christ of
Nazareth, ‘whom you crucified, whom God raised from the
dead …’ (Acts 4.9–10). Aune suggested that underlying this
particular expansion of the name with the formulaic reference
to the Crucifixion is the notion that Jesus’ death on and
ensuing victory over the cross, spelled the destruction of
demonic powers.13 Viewed in this light, both gems can be seen
to follow and so provide just such an expansion of the name,
but doing so through image rather than word; they very clearly
reflect both the interpretation of the Crucifixion as a triumph
over death in the early Church, and the use of the name of
‘Christ crucified’ as a means of protection by Christians. In so
doing, they stand as key witnesses to the Early Christian use of
engraved gems as objects with a distinct devotional and
‘Gems of Heaven’ | 215

religious function. It can be argued that this is confirmed in the
iconography. The depiction of Jesus crucified in the presence of
the Apostles is extremely unusual by comparison to
developments in the representation of the subject in the 5th
and 6th centuries ad, where Jesus is customarily depicted
hanging on the cross in the presence of his mother and John
the Evangelist and often the two thieves. Nevertheless, when
seen within the broader context of Christian iconography at
this period, it can be linked directly with contemporary
pictorial trends for the representation of Jesus among his
In the course of the 4th and early 5th centuries ad, a range
of pictorial formats for the depiction of Jesus among his
Apostles was developed and popularised across a variety of
media in Christian art. Invariably explored within and
understood to be set in a celestial context, this theme placed
especial emphasis on Jesus’ authority as well as his victory over
death in the resurrection (Pl. 3). Hence Jesus could be
portrayed in one of a number of guises: teacher, thaumaturge,
heavenly King, philosopher or giver of the new law.14 Yet
regardless of the role he assumed, and whether he was
presented standing, seated or enthroned as he fulfilled that
role, Jesus was always shown at the centre of the composition,
presiding over the assembly of his Apostles who flanked him in
strictly symmetrical and hieratic compositions. The Apostles
themselves could be shown seated in discussion, or standing
and processing ceremonially towards Jesus – sometimes with
one arm raised in a gesture of acclamation. In certain
iconographic formats, the iconic figure of Jesus was
complemented by the figure of a lamb beneath his feet (as
witnessed on the Nott gem). In other formats he was
substituted by an aniconic symbol: a throne (as on the front
panel of the Pola ivory casket, where it is combined with the
lamb as well as the four Rivers of Paradise);15 or the symbolic
monogram of the cross-trophy, containing the triumphant
cross of the Crucifixion surmounted by a victory wreath (Pl. 4).

A subsequent variant on the theme evolved: the apostolic
veneration of the cross, an iconographic type that appeared in
the late 4th century ad on the sculpted reliefs of a small group
of Roman sarcophagi known as ‘star-and-wreath’. The entire
front of sarcophagi in this group is devoted to the single
composition, with twelve Apostles, shown wearing pallia as on
the Constanza gem, processing slowly and simultaneously
towards the central cross-trophy, the crux invicta, which they
venerate and with which Jesus is associated and identified.
Stars appear between the heads of each Apostle, and each is
crowned with a wreath representing the Crown of Life (Rev.
2.10). In certain examples, such as that now in Arles (Pl. 5),16
the Apostles extend their arms to touch the wreathed cross.17
Hence as Bianca Kühnel has argued, on the sarcophagi the
symbol of the cross and the figure of Jesus became
interchangeable, the substitution of the figure making no
significant change in the general meaning of the scene.18
As with contemporary manifestations of the theme of
‘Christ amongst the Apostles’ in other media, these ‘veneration’
scenes can be regarded as directly related to the iconographic
variant preserved on the gems, where the aniconic symbol of
victory, the wreathed cross, is replaced with the figure of
Christ, crucified yet simultaneously resurrected in triumph.
Jesus, in figural or aniconic form, was understood to be the
conqueror of death and thus shown receiving the victorious
crown of martyrdom, or gestures of veneration, from the
Apostles in heaven. In a rare version seen on a sarcophagus
previously in the Vatican, both the resurrected Christ
(appearing to the two women in the garden) and the victorious
cross are shown (Pl. 4). In the composition found on the Nott
gem, the figure of Jesus evokes the shape of the victorious cross
with his body, raised above the Apostles – two of whom touch
the base of the cross just as they touch the arms of the victory
wreath in other versions (Pl. 5). In the Constanza design,
although the cross itself is shown, and ties at Jesus’ wrists
indicate he is actually attached to it, scale rather than posture

Plate 3 Christ Teaching the Apostles / Giving the New Law, mosaic, probably late 4th century AD, Chapel of S. Aquilino, Basilica of S. Lorenzo, Milan

216 | ‘Gems of heaven’

The Constanza Carnelian and the Development of Crucifixion Iconography in Late Antiquity
Plate 4 ‘Acclamation’ sarcophagus,
4th century AD. Palazzo del Duc di
Ceri in Borgo Vecchio. Previously in
the Vatican, now lost

Plate 5 ‘Star-and-Wreath’
sarcophagus, c. AD 375–400. Musée
de l’Arles Antique, Inv. no. FAN
92.002483 (casket), FAN 92.002484

alone is used to convey the dominance of the cross-form of
Christ’s own body. Consequently, if this imagery is regarded as
being part of the broader search for and development of an
iconography that symbolically expressed the celestial
veneration of Jesus as a figure of triumph and of authority by
the Apostles, the iconography borne by the Constanza and Nott
gems (the latter moreover including the symbol of the lamb)
emerges as an entirely logical, if perhaps less popular variant
on a prevalent and powerful theme in 4th-century ad Christian
While the two gems thus provide critical evidence for the
representation of the Crucifixion by Christians prior to the 5th
century ad, there is a third gem that predates both examples,
and which points to an even earlier manifestation of a pictorial
experiment with the subject. A large bloodstone intaglio (Pls
6a–b), acquired by the British Museum in 1986, preserves a
unique representation of Jesus who is again named and
depicted hanging from a tau cross.19 This gem (see also
Engemann in this volume) is larger than the two gems already
considered; and as has been argued elsewhere, the size, with
the style of the carving, material and inscription show it to be
typical of a large group of Graeco-Roman magical amulets
originating in Egypt and Syria and used widely in the Roman
Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries ad.20 Sharing
important iconographic features with later representations of
the subject in Christian art, this third gem can be seen to
present a distinct, amuletic, usage of emergent pictorial
practices in which the name of Jesus and an image of his death
are combined.
Like the group of amulets to which it belongs, the magical
Crucifixion gem is covered with a densely carved and largely
incomprehensible inscription that includes some Greek letters.

On the obverse (Pl. 6a) a nine-line inscription begins with the
invocation, ‘Son, Father, Jesus Christ’, followed by uncertain
magical names (including soam noam), vowels, and possibly, as
Derchain suggested in his original publication of the gem, the
word ‘hung up’ – which would of course correlate nicely with
the iconography. On the reverse (Pl. 6b), another nine-line
inscription, written in another hand, contains amongst its
strings of letters two names familiar from magical papyri and
other magical gems. Also present is the name Emmanuel from
Isaiah 7:14, taken by Christians to be a prophetic reference to
Jesus. So the crucified figure is possibly named twice (on the
front and back of the stone) as well as depicted.
With the exception of the image, the gem fits well
stylistically into the large body of magical gems of the 2nd and
3rd centuries ad. The iconography of the Crucifixion is
unusual. Jesus is portrayed as a nude, bearded and long-haired
man, hanging from a tau cross in a fashion – with legs split
apart – not seen again in Christian art for the representation of

Plates 6a–b. Bloodstone, eastern Mediterranean (Syria?), late 2nd–3rd
century AD, 30 x 25 x 5.8mm. London, British Museum, PE 1986,0501.1; from
the collection of Roger Periere, Paris

‘Gems of Heaven’ | 217


Plate 7 Graffito with parody of the Crucifixion, scratched into plaster wall,
Imperial Palace, Palatine Hill, Rome (excavated 1856), early 3rd century ad.
Museo Palatino, Inv. No. 381403. H. 380mm, W. 330mm

the Saviour. His arms are stretched out beneath the horizontal
bar of the cross and attached to it by two short strips at the
wrists. His elbows and hands fall loosely as a result, and the
iconography in this detail recalls the Constanza gem, as does
the turning of the head sharply to the left, and the use of the
tau cross. Jesus’ upper body is also rigidly upright. His legs are
carefully carved and shown in profile, bent at the knee, and
hanging open loosely, as though he is seated on a bar or peg,
although none is shown. The starkness of the position,
emphasising Jesus’ nudity, is wholly antithetical to the
triumphal symbolism of the crucified Christ seen in the
Constanza gem and in subsequent Early Byzantine
representations of the subject. Nevertheless, from literary
accounts as well as archaeological evidence we know that
executioners placed victims in different positions on the cross,
including having the legs ‘open’ rather than side by side.21 The
image does however share important, rudimentary visual
elements with another image of the Crucifixion in Late
The flat, strictly frontal presentation of Jesus on the
magical gem, with erect carriage of the head and torso, is seen
in the more well-known crucified figure of the so-called
‘Alexamenos’ graffito (Pl. 7). The graffito, scratched into the
plastered wall of servants’ quarters in the Imperial Palace on
the Palatine Hill, Rome, and now in the antiquariam of the
Palatine, is dated to the early 3rd century ad.22 Customarily
interpreted as a satire of Christian belief in a crucified deity, it
218 | ‘Gems of heaven’

shows the figure of a young man standing in the foreground,
saluting a second figure, tied to a cross and having the head of
a donkey. Unlike the magical gem, where the accompanying
inscription names the crucified figure, here the Greek
‘Alexamenos sebete theon’ (generally translated ‘Alexamenos,
Worship God’) is believed to refer to the rumour that Christians
worshipped a donkey-headed god – an accusation known to
Minucius Felix (Octavius 9.3, 28.7) and Tertullian (Apologeticus
While much could be written about its iconography, in this
context it should be noted that there is a remarkable parity
between this representation of a crucified figure, and those
representations of Jesus crucified that emerge in the 4th and
5th centuries ad, and subsequently across the 6th and 7th
centuries ad. This includes the use of a tau cross (which
appears on the magical and Constanza gems); the upright
stance of the body against the cross; the tapering of the arms
upwards to suggest that they are attached to the crossbar; the
profile view of the victim’s head; the representation of the
victim clothed and not naked; and the more controversial
depiction of a foot support. With all of these features, this
visual conception of a crucifixion appears strikingly
sophisticated for its early date and suggests a ‘pagan’, or nonChristian’s awareness of two things: firstly, the significance of
Jesus’ Crucifixion (at least in terms of it being a powerful and
efficacious symbol); and secondly, a consciousness of the
existence of Christian representations of the Crucifixion by the
early 3rd century ad. This awareness is supported by the
magical gem (Pl. 6), carved possibly in the eastern part of the
Empire at a similar point in time. On the gem a representation
of Jesus’ Crucifixion is attempted, not to deride, but to invoke
his power – and since there is a syncretism of Greek text,
invocation of the name of Jesus on the amulet (which has some
semblance, in its form, with liturgical language) and
iconography, it is not clear whether the owner would have been
a Christian or not.23
Although Church authorities strongly disapproved of
magical amulets, which were all pervasive in the GraecoRoman world, Christians were not averse to using them. In
addition, we know that the practice of accompanying the use of
amulets with magical incantations was widespread.24 This
included the appropriation of Christian liturgy and belief by
practitioners of Graeco-Roman magic. Thus we find the
3rd-century ad Christian theologian Origen (Clement’s near
contemporary and fellow Alexandrian) writing:
The name of Jesus is so powerful against the demons that
sometimes it is effective even when pronounced by bad men
(Contra Celsum 1.6).

The magical gem should therefore be viewed as illustrative of
the eclectic pagan use of various (including ‘Christian’) images
and words on gems engraved for magical purposes as distinct
from the specifically Christian invocation of Jesus’ name in
conjunction with devotional images on gems worn in fingerrings by Christians.25
According to the surviving evidence, the earliest images of the
Crucifixion have generally been thought to have been
produced in the West in the 5th century ad, relatively late in
the broad development of Christian iconography. The first

The Constanza Carnelian and the Development of Crucifixion Iconography in Late Antiquity

Plate 8 Ivory plaque with the Crucifixion, Rome, AD 420–30. 75 x 98mm. London,
British Museum, PE 1856,0623.5

dates to ad 420–30 and appears in the pictorial narrative of the
Passion that is arranged across the series of ivory panels known
as the Maskell Passion ivories (Pl. 8).26 The second, slightly
later, representation is found amongst the cycle of episodes
from the Old and New Testament illustrated on the wooden
doors of the church of Sta Sabina in Rome, carved in the ad
430s (Pl. 9). The evidence yielded from the study of engraved
gemstones, which furnish even earlier representations of the
subject, suggests that experimentation with pictorial
representations of Jesus affixed to the cross had begun by the
3rd century ad. While the experimentation might not have
been extensive, or the results popular (given the paucity of
evidence), the fact of it is very clearly if unexpectedly attested
by the magical Pereire gem in the first instance, and the
Constanza and Nott gems in the second.
The magical gem (Pl. 6), when placed alongside and with
the evidence of the near contemporary Palatine graffito
indicates several things. Firstly, that representations of a
crucified figure were being attempted in the eastern as well as
the western parts of the Roman Empire by the 3rd century ad.
The very portability of the gem, even if confined to private use
by an individual, would also suggest that designs for the

Plate 9 Detail of wooden door panel with Crucifixion, Sta Sabina , Rome, c. AD 430

Crucifixion were in circulation (however limited) amongst
makers as well as customers at an early date. Secondly, that
pagans used such representations for their own purposes,
including magical and satirical; and therefore thirdly, that the
Crucifixion was understood by Christians and non-Christians
alike as a powerful and efficacious symbol. The iconographic
evidence links directly with literary evidence, only briefly
discussed here, for the efficacy of verbal proclamations of
‘Christ crucified’ as a means of warding off evil amongst Jesus’
followers and non-followers alike.
Alongside this visual evidence, the Constanza and Nott
gems attest to the fact that in the following century, when
further experimentation with Crucifixion iconography was
clearly taking place, the interest in the subject among Christian
communities remained firmly on the death as a demonstration
of Jesus’ triumph and authority. Furthermore, that while the
magical and indeed Palatine representations seem to illustrate
pictorial practices of evoking some sense of ‘story’ or narrative
and practical detail in terms of documenting aspects of the
‘how’ Jesus was crucified (such as clearly rendering the cross,
the victim’s means of affixation to it, even posture and the
position of the legs), the Constanza and Nott gems appear to
have somewhat broader, symbolic concerns. These pertain
directly to the manifestation of Jesus’ power in defeating
death, and so to the depiction of his crucified yet victoriously
resurrected body symbolically adored in heaven by the
Apostles. The presence of the 12 Apostles beside the cross is not
in accord with accounts of the Crucifixion in the canonical
Gospels, which specifically note their abandonment of Jesus
(Matthew 26:56, Mark 14:50, Luke 22:54, John 18:15). Indeed,
from surviving evidence it appears that no such depiction of
the subject occurs again until the early 8th century ad, in Rome
on the triumphal arch of the church of Sta Maria Antiqua (ad
705–7), where rows of angels and peoples replace the Apostles
in processing towards and adoring the crucified but
triumphant Christ.27 Hence rather than purporting to fulfil a
narrative function in the ways developed in other media for the
representation of Jesus’ death after the 5th century ad, the Nott
and Constanza gems seem to anticipate later symbolic and
even apocalyptic representations of the scene, such as occurs at
Sta Maria Antiqua.
The Constanza and Nott iconography suggests that before
arriving at a visual depiction of the Crucifixion in its historic/
narrative guise for public art (which extant evidence
documents as emerging in the 5th century ad),
experimentation with the depiction of the event occurred in
the miniature arts, utilising those triumphal artistic formats
developed with increasing success in other media for the
expression of the veneration of Jesus (and also, the veneration
of the cross). Given the dating of contemporary sarcophagi, it
can be argued that the remarkable survival of these two gems
provides rare evidence for the existence and circulation of such
a representation of the crucified Jesus amongst Christian
communities, probably by the mid-4th century ad. From the
rarity and lack of other evidence at this time it might also be
concluded that in competition with other highly successful
types for the representation of Jesus triumphant, the crucified/
resurrected variant on that overwhelmingly popular
iconographic pattern was not transferred to, or tested in, other
media for further development. Nevertheless, it did survive in
‘Gems of Heaven’ | 219

some form, as the re-emergence in such Early Byzantine
apocalyptic scenes as that preserved at Sta Maria Antiqua
seems to suggest.
The question of the rarity of images of the Crucifixion in
Late Antiquity is by no means solved by this brief assessment of
the evidence provided by engraved gems. Nevertheless, an
attempt has been made here to raise awareness of the evidence,
pointing out not only the 3rd century ad existence of
Crucifixion iconography, but manifestations of that existence
in art used in magical and Christian contexts. As HarcourtSmith presciently observed, the iconography preserved by the
Constanza and Nott gems contributes key evidence in the
broader history of the representation of the subject in Christian
art, and so deserves to be fully incorporated into a detailed
account of that iconographic development. And as Derchain
further demonstrated, in the process of charting this
development, the testimony of magical gems should be allowed
to sit alongside that of Christian gems. As a result, when
considering the rarity of Crucifixion images in Late Antiquity, a
wider range of evidence can be taken into account. The
connection between the visual and literary sources for the
reference to and invocation of Christ crucified as a source of
power, is just one step in directly challenging that persistent
belief that persecuted Christians were too scared or too
ashamed to name and depict the subject explicitly. Certainly,
the rarity of representations remains something of a mystery,
given the evident ability of artisans to depict the subject. Yet
alternative explanations beyond claims of avoidance of or
refusal to depict the image are now able to undergo further






I acknowledge with gratitude the support and encouragement of
Jeffrey Spier and thank him for critical observations and suggestions.
My thanks are also due to: Christopher Entwistle; Robin Jensen; and
Andrew McGowan, for his comments.


The gem was first published by C. Harcourt-Smith, ‘The
Crucifixion on a Greek Gem’, The Annual of the British School at
Athens 3 (1896/7), 201–6.
2 Franks gave at least 1,500 objects to the British Museum in 1895,
one year before he retired from the Keepership: M. Caygill, ‘Franks
and the British Museum – the Cuckoo in the Nest’, in M. Caygill and
J. Cherry (eds), A.W. Franks: Nineteenth-Century Collecting and the
British Museum, London, 1997, 96–7.
3 For the formula, its appearance on Christian gems and frequent
use in conjunction with symbols as well as narrative scenes, see
now J. Spier, Late Antique and Early Christian Gems, Wiesbaden,
2007, 34–5 and 35, n. 24.
4 The expansion of knowledge was only recently provided by Spier
in his comprehensive catalogue, cited above, and on this gem and
its date, no. 444, 73–4.
5 The contents of this paper present a brief synthesis of detailed
arguments contained in F. Harley, Images of the Crucifixion in Late
Antiquity: The Testimony of Engraved Gems, Unpublished PhD
dissertation, University of Adelaide, 2001, and in a forthcoming
6 References to Clement here are from the Ante-Nicene Fathers. For a
close discussion of the passage see P.C. Finney, ‘Images on Fingerrings and Early Christian Art’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 (1987),

220 | ‘Gems of heaven’




See Spier (n. 3), chapters 3 (inscriptions and monograms), 4
(symbols), 5 (Good Shepherd) and 6 (narrative scenes, including
some 3rd century ad examples).
R. Garrucci, Storia dell’ arte cristiana nei primi otto secoli della
chiesa, 6 vols, Prato, 1872–81, vol. 6 (1880), 124, pl. 479, no. 15.
Variations on the spelling of Jesus’ name appear on other Early
Christian gems: Spier (n. 3), nos 205, 206 and 446.
Spier argues that the nimbus indicates a date no earlier than the
Constantinian period, ‘before which time nimbi are unlikely to
have been used in a Christian context’: Spier (n. 3), 74.
Spier (n. 3), 11.
W. Heitmüller, Im Namen Jesu: Eine sprach- und religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung zum Neuen Testament, speziell zur
altchristlichen Taufe, Göttingen, 1903. The contents are
recapitulated in the discussion by D. Aune, ‘Magic in Early
Christianity’, in H. Temporini and W. Haase (eds), Aufstieg und
Niedergang der römischen Welt, Part II, 23/2, Berlin and New York,
1980, cols 1507–57, especially 1546–9.
Aune (n. 12), 1547–8.
Both depictions of Christ among the Apostles on the two long sides
of the Sarcophagus of Stilicho, sculpted in or near Milan in the late
4th century ad (now preserved beneath the pulpit, Basilica
Sant’Ambrogio, Milan), include a depiction of a lamb beneath his
feet, as on the Nott gem. J. Dresken-Weiland, Repertorium der
christlich-antiken Sarkophage, vol. 2, Mainz, 1998, 56ff, no. 150
with bibliography, and pl. 60.1.
Ivory ‘Samagher’ Casket, Rome (?), c. ad 450, 185 x 205 x 161mm.
Museo Archaeologico Nazionale di Venezia. D. Longhi, La Capsella
Eburnea di Samagher: Iconografia e Committenza, Ravenna, 2006, pl.
B. Christern-Briesnick (with H. Brandenburg and G. Bovini),
Repertorium der christlich-antiken Sarkophage, vol. 3, Mainz,
2003, 35–6, no. 49.
M. Lawrence, ‘Columnar Sarcophagi in the Latin West’, Art
Bulletin 14 (1932), 112–15 and 173, nos 90–5; G. Koch, Frühchristliche Sarkophage, Munich, 2000, 315–16.
On this point: B. Kühnel, From the Earthly to the Heavenly Jerusalem,
Rome, 1987, 69, as part of her broader discussion of the association
and identification of Jesus with the cross in monumental artistic
contexts at this period. According to Lawrence, the sarcophagus in
Arles preserves the ‘fullest and best’ example of the star-and-wreath
type: Lawrence (n. 17), 173, no. 90, with early bibliography; and now
Koch (n. 17), 316, no. 50 with further bibliography.
First published by Philippe Derchain in 1964: ‘Die älteste Darstellung
des Gekreuzigten auf einer magischen Gemme des 3. (?) Jahrhunderts’, in K. Wessel (ed.), Christentum am Nil, Recklinghausen,
1964, 109–13.
J. Spier and F. Harley, ‘Magical Amulet with Crucifixion’, in J. Spier
(ed.), Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art (exh. cat., Fort
Worth), Fort Worth, 2007, 228–9, including bibliography.
J. Zias and E. Sekeles, ‘The Crucified Man From Giv’at ha-Mivtar: A
Reappraisal’, Israel Exploration Journal 35 (1985), 22–7.
M. Itkonen-Kaila and H. Solin in V. Väänänen (ed.), Graffiti del
Palatino vol. 1: Paedagogia (Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae 3),
Helsinki, 1966, 40–1, fig. 35 and 209–12, no. 246; I. Di Stefano
Manzella, Le iscrizioni dei cristiani in Vaticano, Vatican City, 1997,
192–4; Harley in Spier (n. 20), 227–8.
Harley (n. 5), 133, 135–6; and Spier (n. 3), 75.
On Christian magic, see Aune (n. 12), cols 1507–57.
Spier (n. 3), passim, and specifically 82.
For a brief discussion, see Harley in Spier (n. 20), 229–32.
U. Nilgen, ‘The Adoration of the Crucified Christ at Santa Maria
Antiqua and the Tradition of Triumphal Arch Decoration in Rome’,
in J. Osborne et al. (eds), Santa Maria Antiqua al Foro Romano cento
anni dopo (confer. proc., Rome, 2000), Rome, 2004, 128–35. For a
recent (2008) reconstruction of the triumphal arch by Per Jonas
Nordhagen and Per Olav Folgerø see: P.O. Folgerø, ‘The Lowest,
Lost Zone in The Adoration of the Crucified Scene in S. Maria
Antiqua in Rome: A new conjecture’, Journal of the Warburg and
Courtauld Institutes 72 (2009), 215, fig. 9.

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