Victorian Sardonyx Cameo of Archangel Gabriel
Superb cameo in sardonyx, (a form of chalcedony) depicting a bust of the archangel Gabriel in his role as Annunciation angel. The portrait is based on a panel from a high Renaissance Italian altarpiece, known as the Averoldi Polyptych, painted by Titian in the 1520s. In the altarpiece, displayed in the basilica church of Santi Nazaro e Celso, Brescia, the panel showing the Annunciation angel is on the upper left, separated by a large centre panel of Christ from a panel of the Virgin Mary on the right. The angel is shown in profile, facing right, his head lit from behind. With arms outstretched, he holds up a banner which reads 'AVE GRATIA PLENA'.
From gem impressions in the James Tassie collection of the Beazley Archive, Oxford we know that the angel with his very distinctive streaming curls had already appeared on engraved gems by the latter part of the eighteenth century. In nineteenth-century cameo carving, he has not always been recognized as Gabriel, however, and is sometimes interpreted as a youthful Apollo. As the subject was typically depicted without wings, this is not an unreasonable assumption. It is interesting that by the late Victorian period awash with cheaper shell cameos, this same cameo profile had evolved into an Athena-type of ‘warrior goddess’, sporting a shock of sausage ringlets and with part of a circular shield replacing Gabriel’s puffed sleeve. Often she would have wings on her head, like Medusa; and if instead, she happened to have a crescent moon on top, she turned into Apollo’s sister, Diana. I suspect Titian would be turning in his grave!
Returning to the present hardstone cameo, while it is uncertain whether the carver had Gabriel or Apollo in mind, I feel this fine work is most likely Italian and dates from around the mid-nineteenth century. As the strong facial features have a somewhat idealized classical look, it is possible that the carver was imagining Apollo rather than Gabriel as his subject. The hair with those fabulous corkscrewing curls is beautifully rendered, as is his ear. All these details combine with the smooth contours of his jaw and neck and deep folds of his sleeves to give a sense of both power and grace.
Across the back surface of the cameo, there is an extremely fine, diagonal, interrupted hairline which is hard to see unless held to the light. It does not come through to the front surface of the translucent brown layer nor to the carving. In the carving itself, there is one faint darker vein on the angel's draped shoulder, of no significance.
This is a wonderful piece to add to a collection of antique cameos and would also be suitable for mounting as a brooch or pendant.
CULTURE: Classical Revival
DATE: 19th century A.D.
SIZE: 41mm x 39mm x 7mm
WEIGHT: 13.3 grams
PROVENANCE: Ex. private collection, Gloucestershire.