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The Constanza Carnelian and the Developm.pdf

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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