Thanks to their beauty, meticulous execution, multi-coloured
stones, and variety of iconographic motifs, cameos have been objects of
admiration for long centuries. From among several thousands of them, certain
cameos won special popularity in the course of time, both with the artists and art
collectors, and they were copied just like many of the best Classical and
Renaissance works of art were.
In a private collection in Slovenia a quality cameo in agate was found
recently which has not been dealt with in scholarly literature before. For the
time being, its engraver, the time of execution, and the provenance remain
The cameo was made on the model of an incomplete cameo of sardonyx
dating from the 1st century B.C. The scene it depicts has been related by
researchers to two Classical stories, either to Homer’s epic poem The Iliad or to Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Tauris.
Depicted in white relief against a dark background are a standing male
figure to the right and a warrior entering through a door more to the left;
only half of the door has been preserved, with a curtain and a volute on the
top. Next to the warrior a fragment of another figure – a hand with some
drapery – can be seen. To the left a seated male figure has also been partly
preserved: his bent head, which the youth supports with his right hand, and
part of his legs.
This cameo is believed to have been found by a peasant in the
surroundings of Rome and sold for little money to Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692‒1779).
Afterwards the cameo changed several owners. Its fame spread shortly after 1760,
when the German archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann
(1717‒1768) published it under the name The
Tears of Achilles in his book in
which he described the celebrated gem collection of Baron Philipp von Stosch
(1691‒1757), a collector of gems and a pioneer in their study. Winckelmann identified
the fragmentarily preserved motif as a scene from Homer’s Iliad (XVIII, 15‒34): on the instruction by Menelaus, Antilochus,
son of Nestor, leaves the battlefield and rushes to inform Achilles, who
already had a sense of misgiving, about the sad news of Patroclus’ death and
destiny. In 1921 the cameo was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston,
where it is kept under the title Orestes
and His Friend Pylades. The fact is that on the basis of related scenes on
Roman sarcophagi John Davidson Beazley (1885‒1970), archaeologist, art
historian and professor, identified the motif as Orestes' farewell from Pylades
The cameo became the prototype for numerous new gems ‒ copies, variants,
and casts, which can now be found both in private and public collections all
over the world. But because it was preserved only fragmentarily, artists added
the missing part out of their own invention. In the presently discussed cameo a
female figure wearing a Phrygian cap is added behind the seated man, and the door
is presented in full.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, gem engravers mastered both copying Classical
glyptics and creating new compositions which, however, often relied on
compositions from other art branches, such as vase painting and reliefs on
Roman sarcophagi. The Antiquity created several images that became the standard
for later depictions and were given several interpretations in the course of
centuries. Because of combinations of individual elements from different art branches
it is unfortunately impossible to state reliably which art models served the
artists to complement the missing fragment.