Menu Shopping cart
Your basket is empty.
Support us


Exhibitions and Projects
6 April–3 May 2017

Revelations, April 2017

The Tears of Achilles Cameo

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 unidentified.

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 in Tauris.

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.

Alenka Simončič

Translated by
Alenka Klemenc

6 April–3 May 2017
Narodna galerija
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana