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Cameos, The Portraits Of The Ancients

Queen Elizabeth pledged her affection to the Duke of Essex with her portrait carved on a turquoise and set in a ring. But Elizabeth had her French cameo artist cut her likeness or some scenic design for all her favorite cavaliers on turquoise, the choice cameo stone of late medieval Europe.

Ancient Egypt's Cleopatra, however, had her lapidaries cut her portrait in low relief on emeralds for 'those she chose to honor. And Victoria Regina, the famous Queen of the modern world, collected cameos carved from shells, and dispensed many to her admiring friends.

The tastes of these three Queens mark the three materials much used in cameo cutting. The semi-precious stones included turquoise, lapis lazuli, jade, amber, chalcedony, sardonyx, agate and onyx. Of the precious stones, emeralds, amethysts, and garnets are most used, with the ruby but rarely, and no diamonds until about the 15th century. Shells and other lesser materials include lava, mother-of-pearl, tortoise, lacquer, glass, clay, fruit stones, nut shells, ivory and bones.


One cameo collector in America found a beautiful cameo cut from the skull of an eagle.

Precious and semi-precious stones and ivory give sharp clean lines due to their hardness, though this scarcely seems true in some Chinese stone carvings. The precious stones are seldom carved in high relief partly because of the difficult cutting, partly to protect the fine details from getting chipped or knocked off in the using.

Shells, lacquer, lava and such softer materials have more fluid lines, gentler edges, and a softness of finish not commonly found in hard stones. The Greeks cut their cameos in somewhat low relief, leaving the back of the cameo flat, but late medieval cutters pushed up the height of the relief and hollowed out the underside for light effects.

Cameo cutters love to work on a stone with several layers of color, as the various hues help bring out the decorative details. In portraiture, for instance, the set of the eyes, the curve of the cheek, the turn of the ear against the elaboration of the hair, must be shown. Also the sheer and delicate folds of the garment falling from the throat over the swelling breast, the firm fullness of the shoulder, the grace of the hand holding, say, the symbolic flower or sceptre - all can be brought out in molding, shading, highlights and density of color.


Sardonyx and onyx having from two to nine layers of color, give a perfect opportunity to the cameo cutter. Alexander the Great-and the vain-had his Greek cameo cutter use sardonyx and onyx from India for his portraits. We know from them what he looked like, wore, and to some extent, used. The finest Roman cameos, small portrait heads, were of members of the ruling families, of gods, the rich, and the famous. They were cut the first two cen turies A.D. Cameo cutters who used stones with two or more color bands, cut their designs parallel to the bands for contrasts, textures, and other sculptural effects.

Stone colors were due to minerals, mainly iron. Light brown to dark to red stones were called sardonyx ; two-layer white to black stones, onyx.

The rich used jewel stones; others glass. Often three different colored bands of glass were fused together, imitating sardonyx. Opaque white, fused to a dark base, imitated onyx.

Some glass cameos were made by pressing a blob of hot glass in a mold to set the likeness. When the glass cooled it was trimmed to shape on a lapidary's wheel. A cameo cutter's tools added finishing details. Many glass cameos reached high artistry. One famous Roman glass cameo is a head of Augustus cut in blue glass, now at the Vienna Museum.

The Portland vase found in 1550 in a Roman Emperor's tomb, and cut by a Greek, is supreme in glass cameo cutting. Its white top layer is cut away to form the design in opaque white, bluish white and pale blue (borrowed from the blue beneath), agains? a deep blue background.


Most of Flaxman's cameos for Wedgwood are portraits of Roman emperors, and modern interpretations of mythological scenes. They are rare, but are still found by collectors.

Cameo, doubtless from "camea" meaning amulet, was an identification, signature, decoration, and often a charm against various threats to life, health, and luck in love and war. The military anciently used cameos for their portent, and for fasteners, as we use buttons. Women wore them as hair ornaments, brooches, necklaces, amulets. armlets, bracelets and finger rings.

Connect them with intaglios, which are designs chiseled down in the stone, and this art of miniature sculpture runs back to Babylonian seals. In the Jewel Room at Chicago's Natural History Museum is a four-sided green jasper intaglio from the 15th century, B. C. It is set in a ring, and a wire through its center lets it pivot any of its four carved sides to the top, at its owner's wish.

From the third century, A. D. is a Greco-Roman chalcedony lion's head in bluish semi-translucent white, set in a twisted gold wire mounting about the size of a quarter. However, Renaissance cutters leaned toward agate, onyx, and two-toned shells. The design was carved in wax then copied detail by detail in shell or stone.


Over four thousand years ago the Babylonians were cutting and sculpturing gems. The Egyptians, Myceneans, Phoenicians, and Arabians bought and traded them over the ancient world.

Greece scoffed at Egypt's scarab cuttings and perfected her own naturalistic miniature sculpture to the world's enrichment. Roman emperors left their endless portraits through the delicate chiselings of their Greek slaves and their own skilled lapidaries. The Roman centurions introducea cameos to Europe.

Julius Caesar collected cameos. The Crusaders brought them back from their wars and travels. Catherine de Medici and Lorenzo the Magnificent made collections worth the ransom of kings. Pope Paul amassed an unrivaled collection and is said to have worn so many cameos they caused his death.

Queen Elizabeth created a renewed demand for them after the dearth of the dark ages. Empress Josephine persuaded Napoleon to let her wear precious pieces from the State's collection. And Victoria of England spread them over her Empire and started so great a vogue for them in this country her reign is sometimes called the "cameo age of America."

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