Spier, Jeffrey

Late Antique and Early Christian Gems

22.5 x 31.5 cm, 388 p., 1300 illustrations b/w, hardback
198,00 €

ISBN: 9783895004346
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Short Description

Throughout the Middle Ages, Roman gems and cameos were highly valued as intrinsically precious objects or even as possessing magical properties. During the Renaissance, large collections of gems were formed by aristocratic collectors who sought inspiration from the classical images engraved on them, and gems have been collected for similar reasons ever since. With the exception of a few dedicated antiquaries, however, collectors and scholars over the last five hundred years or so have generally ignored late antique and early Christian gems. This study presents more than 1000 gems from different collections, more than 300 of them unpublished so far. They are presented according to different genres, themes, material and place or time of production. The catalogue is completed by about 1300 illustrations.


This study gathers all known engraved gems of the late antique period (late third to the early seventh centuries) and discusses their chronology, workshops, and iconographical significance. Approximately 1000 gems and cameos are described, most of which are illustrated in over 150 plates. Many of these objects have never before been published.
Engraved gems used as personal seals had been used in the Graeco-Roman world for many centuries and survive today in large numbers. The gems and cameos of the late antique period are, however, far rarer, reflecting the rapid decline, beginning in the mid-third century, of this long artistic tradition. Remarkably, the early Christians of the late third and early fourth centuries began to use seals of traditional form but engraved with distinctive images and inscriptions. Symbols, such as the fish, anchor, and Good Shepherd, appear, as do Old and New Testament scenes.
Although there was a remarkable revival of fine quality engraved gems at the time of Emperor Constantine and his successors, by the end of the fourth century few gems were being cut. However, several new workshops emerged in the late fifth and sixth centuries, producing gems in fine materials, such as garnet, sapphire, amethyst, and rock crystal. The iconography of these gems reflects the interests of Christian artists of the early Byzantine period.
Other chapters in the book are devoted to cameos, Christian Sasanian seals, Jewish seals, magical amulets, and the history of scholarship and collecting. Three appendices discuss engraved rings, lead seals, and monograms, and much comparative material is illustrated.
The catalogue presents an important body of material that has been largely unpublished and neglected. The range of Christian images found on the early gems is similar to that found in the catacombs of Rome, although it is mostly of Eastern rather than Western origin. The early Byzantine workshops identified in the catalogue attest to the revival of this classical tradition in the luxurious court art of Constantinople and other prominent cities of the Byzantine Empire.


“In his “Paedagogus,” written at the turn of the second and third centuries, Clement of Alexandria spoke in explicit favour of seal stones (3.59.2). Although Clement deemed most images problematic (“empty idols”), gold finger-rings were a practical necessity. While banning certain sorts of engraved subjects (“faces of idols”, “the sword or bow”, “drinking cups”), moreover, Clement actively encouraged others - a dove, fish, ship, lyre, anchor, or fisherman. Clement ascribes a symbolic function to such images: according to this rhetoric, the impressed image of a man fishing could “call to mind [memnêsetai] the apostle and the children drawn out of the water”.
Given the evident importance of such imagery to early Christian apologists, it is perhaps surprising how little attention has been paid to the corpus of extant early Christian intaglios, cameos and rings. As the introduction to this book surveys, scholars have conspicuously undervalued this material (in his magisterial three-volume work on “Die antiken Gemmen,” for example, Adolf Furtwängler dedicated a mere dozen pages to the productions of later antiquity). Quantitatively speaking, such neglect is perhaps understandable: although over 100,000 extant gems date between Augustus and Aurelian, only a 1,000 or so can be assigned to later antiquity - “a certain indication that the use of engraved gems declined rapidly after the mid-third century” (11). For all their diminutive number, though, early Christian gems possess a disproportional importance for those interested in late antique visual culture, or indeed the history and theology of the early Church. Spier’ book - with its excellent black and white plates (155 in total) - makes the material properly accessible for the first time.
The catalogue and discussions are deliberately wide-ranging. S. discusses some 1,000 gems, in addition to 144 “misattributed, forged and uncertain works” (not all of them photographed), 100 engraved rings (a selective survey), 30 lead sealings, and 39 homogeneous jasper gems with Christian monograms. Apart from the introduction and three appendices (on rings, lead sealings, and jasper gems), there are seventeen chapters in all, divided chronologically, thematically and geographically (“The Good Shepherd”, “The Gamet Workshop and Glass Intaglios, Late Fifth Century”, “Christian Gems in the Sasanian Empire”, etc.). Six indices and concordances round off the catalogue, collating individual collections, provenances, materials, iconographic subjects and inscribed texts.
Each chapter begins with an introductory overview, then a taxonomie survey-cum-catalogue, and finally a series of collective and thematic discussions. In each case, it is the depth and breadth of S.’s learning that will most impress. As explained on pp. 12-13, it is not always easy to attribute or date these objects. In each case, though, the evidence is laid out according to a special framework of shapes and materials (12, chart 1). S. is also concerned to contextualize the engraved iconography; he discusses each individual gern or type in light of its larger visual context, and across an array of different artistic media.
As the price suggests, the book is clearly intended for a specialist audience. Still, it also caters to an array of different scholars - not just those interested in gern production per se. For this reviewer, it is the correctiveg to standard accounts of early Christian iconography that most stands out. So it is, for example, that we find scenes of the crucifixion on gems dating even as early as c. A.D. 300, preceding almost all other extant representations (were miniature cameo depictions somehow less irksome?); some of those depictions fly in the face of Scriptural accounts (Christ crucified in the presence of the twelve apostles, for example), and another depicts Jesus naked (no. 443). Equally important is the fifth chapter, which demonstrates the continuities between gems of the Graeco-Roman kriophoros type and Christian depictions of the Good Shepherd; earlier in the book, we also read about the history of the engraved chi-rho monogram in the East (which appears long before Constantine’s apparition after the Battle of Milvian Bridge (32-4)). Other conclusions concur with what can be gleaned from the earliest catacomb paintings and sarcophagi reliefs: the preference for Old over New Testament themes in the third and fourth centuries (ch. 6), for example, or the appropriation of other pagan symbols and ideograms (ch. 3).
Different chapters will appeal to different scholarly interests. Quite apart from the important chapters on Christian magical gems, the distinctive traits of Syrian-Palestinian gems, and later rock-crystal pendants, the sixteenth chapter on Jewish seals will be of particular importance. As S. points out, gems seem to have negotiated broader Judaic prohibitions against gentile idolatry (hence those intaglios which depict Old Testament subjects complete with Hebraic tides or texts). For Jews, as for Christians, these objects seem to have been associated with a special visual status or “ontology” - providing not only inscribed miniature images, but also (when used as seals) impressed representations after each impressed engraving. It is Judaic Scripture, after all, which gives us the mantra, “set me as a seal upon thy heart” (Solomon 8:6).
Such broader questions about the special status of gem imagery are somewhat ill-served by the catalogue genre. The aim of his book, S. writes, is to “provide a basis for the further study of what is in fact a fairly substantial body of material pertaining to late antiquity, early Christianity and Judaism” (9), S.’s volume more than fulfils that remit. But the task now is to rethink how these little objects relate to larger Christian discourses of representation and replication - discourses that were at on ce constructed and reflected by images and texts alike. Within that grander intellectual historical project, S.’s excellent compendium will prove an indispensable first resource.”

Michael Squire

In: Journal of Roman Studies. 102 (2012). pp. 408-409.


„Mehrere hilfreiche Indizes beschließen den umfangreichen und (...) äußerst sorgfältig gestalteten Band, der die Reihe um eine wichtige und, wie deutlich wird, bisher zu Unrecht wenig beachtete Materialgruppe bereichert.“

Dorothea Hübner

In: Trierer Zeitschrift. 73/74 (2010/2011). S. 401-404.


„Bien connu pour ses travaux sur l’iconographie des inatailles et pierres gravées, Jeffrey Spier livre un catalogue très attendu de gemmes chrétiennes et juives de l’Antiquité tardive. Le corpus se compose de plus de 1000 pièces, en grande partie inédites, s’échelonnant du milieu du IIIe siècle de notre ère, conservées dans des musées et des collections particulières. (...)“

Véronique Dasen

In: Latomus. Tome 70 (2011) fasc. 1. S. 309-311.


„Gem stones bearing Christian symbols, iconography, or inscriptions have been known for a longtime, and occasionally such pieces can be bought from antiquity dealers. The British Museum has the largest collection, but this is the first really comprehensive catalogue, complete with items from private collections, and complete, of course, with plates. More than a thousand items are here classified and listed, including a few Jewish gems and a number of forgeries. the items date mostly from the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, though some are later. Item no. 734, recently declared a forgery by Paul Finney, is here taken to be genuine; it shows the sacrifice of Isaac and is dated to ca. 300 CE. (Item no. 439 refers to the prohet Barlaam, but meant is Balaam.) - An indispensable scholary resource on early-Christian art.“

In: International Review of Biblical Studies. Vol. 53 (2006/2007).


„In general early Christian gems have been neglected by historians of late antique art and culture, despite their explicit contemporary discussion by Clement of Alexandria (in Paedagogus 3.59-60) and their interesting relationship with the heritage of pagan magical amulets and talismans. Yet they are of crucial importance for an understanding of the development and transmission of early Christian iconography - giving for example our earliest (pre-Constantinian) evidence for such image-types as the crucifixion. Their evidence is complex since most such gems are not known through well-documentated archaeology or by their find spots, but through collections (ranging from early medieval ecclesiastical and royal treasuries to modern museum and private collections, via such intermediaries as Renaissance antiquaries and connoisseurs). Moreover, until the wonderful and comprehensive catalogue under review here, it has not been easy for scholars to track down the objects except via specific museum catalogues, wich may publish given collections but give little sense of an overview. Jeffrey Spier’s excellent publication of this material should help significantly to redress this ignorance, and its 155 pages of plates, each with numerous gems upon it (alas, none in colour) make the serious study of this important class of early Christian art genuinely possible. After a brief introduction (“Early Christian gems lost and found, five hundred years of study and collecting“) and a first chapter on the end of the classical tradition of gem carving, Spier’s chapters take us through the mass of material in a series of overlapping classifications - chronologically, by geographic groupings, by type of stone and by iconographic types. Chapters iii-vii straddle the Peace of the Church, going from the third to the fifth century by portraits (not really a „Christian“ category, but useful to have it here), gems with Christian inscriptions and monograms, gems with Christian symbols, with the Good shepherd, with narrative scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and Christian magical gems. The next nine chapters cover a wide range of material, mostly later and reaching into the seventh century, but with cameos (in a chapter devoted to a very specific type of gem and including the famous portrait cameo perhaps of Honorius and Maria now in Paris) glancing back as early as the third. As with any kind of material that is valuable in itself and often of unknown provenance, the question of forgery must always be at the back of one’s mind, and chapter xvii of this volume contains a good section on such material, unfortunately most of it not illustrated and combined with authentic but misattribtued items. This book is of course a concerted argument or a monograph, but its contribution is substantive, its scholarchip deep and its presentation excellent.“

In: Journal of Ecclesiastical History. Vol. 60/1 (January 2009). p. 139.

Biographical Note

Jeffrey Spier teaches in the Department of Classics at the University of Arizona. He has published catalogues of the gem collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, as well as many articles in the field. He is also the curator and author of the forthcoming exhibition, Picturing the Bible: the Earliest Christian Art (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas).


3rd century, c 200 to c 299 (38) || 4th century, c 300 to c 399 (45) || 5th century, c 400 to c 499 (47) || 6th century, c 500 to c 599 (44) || 7th century, c 600 to c 699 (35) || Archaeology (449) || Archaeology by period / region (367) || Byzantine Empire (39) || Byzantine style (24) || Fine arts: art forms (171) || Fine arts: treatments & subjects (389) || Historical states & empires: multi-continental (54) || Historical states, empires & regions (213) || History of art (229) || Mittelalter (253) || Non-graphic art forms (46) || Precious metal, precious stones & jewellery: artworks & design (11) || Spätantike (55) || c 1 CE to c 500 CE (150) || c 500 CE to c 1000 CE (174)