Several thousand years of art history has been captured in minute images carved in precious or semi-precious stones, the so-called gems. There are two types of carved gems: intaglios and cameos. The design of the former is engraved as a »negative« into the flat background of the gem. For the most part, they were mounted in rings which served as seals to be pressed into sealing wax or clay. They were used to seal both public documents and personal letters. The imprinted image stood as a signature, thus ensuring the ownership and intactness of the content of a document or envelope or package. In contrast, the design in cameos is carved in relief, that is to say as a »positive«. They are chiefly made of layers of differently coloured stones. They only served a decorative purpose as jewellery.
The art of carving or incising designs into stones goes back to the 4th millennium BC and it most likely originated in Mesopotamia. The technical process developed through long centuries and produced outstanding results both in terms of craftsmanship and artistic merit. Gems are very small, mostly not larger than one square centimetre, yet the masters who created them were capable of carving most diverse motifs – scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey, individual deities, mythical or historical events, everyday scenes, animals, portraits of contemporaries, etc. Each gem was a unique item of intimate character. They were made exclusively to order placed by individuals and were meant solely for their personal use. They accompanied the owner to the netherworld, or were passed down from generation to generation. Carved or engraved images can express the client's character and taste, way of life, respect for ancestors, loyalty to rulers, devotion to deities, adherence to a philosophical doctrine, affection for a beloved person, they can celebrate a solemn event or personal virtuous deeds. The choice of the motif in combination with the selected stone also enhanced the magic power of the gem, which served the owner as an amulet. Thanks to their beauty, precision in execution, wide range of stones and variety of iconographic motifs, gems have been greatly admired for centuries.
Mainly due to a great interest of art collectors, impressions of original gems came into fashion in the seventeenth century; they were made of plaster or sealing wax, because the prices of these were by far more affordable than the costs required for the originals. Collections of impressions were widespread particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They contained impressions of classical, Renaissance and Baroque gems as well as the so-called modern-period gems which were made in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Looking at such collections one got the feeling he was back to ancient times. It was possible to contemplate them and imagine that one had true characters of the old world before their eyes. One of such collections, dating from the early nineteenth century, is also housed in the National Gallery of Slovenia. It was donated in 1961 by the medallist and sculptor Anton Sever (1886–1965).
8 January–4 February 2015
National Gallery of Slovenia