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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
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
context.10
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