Byzantine Braided Gold Necklace with a Medallion representing Fortune and Bellerophon and A Bracelet with Pseudo-Medallions
Byzantine · 6th century A.D.
L: 52 cm
Dia: 8.2 cm
This beautiful and rare set is composed of a braided chain necklace with a medallion and of a bracelet with medallions. The iconography adorning these objects clearly refers to the profane and mythological world. Such subjects are still largely seen on luxury objects during the first centuries of the Empire and demonstrate the persistence of Classical culture.
The necklace is made of a braided chain, the clasp of which is composed of two beaded circular elements imitating the Imperial coins (Zeno Tarasius the Isaurian, 430-491?). The chain frames a large medallion attached to a molded rectangular element, which connects the various elements using hinges. The large medallion consists of two hammered sheet-gold plaques with beaded border. The plaques were hammered over a matrix to achieve the iconographic motifs. The scenes on both sides are surrounded by two concentric ornamental friezes. The goddess Fortune is represented on one side. She is seated on a throne, wearing the crown of Tyche and holding the cornucopia. An offering lies on an altar, which is placed to the left of the goddess. A caduceus is pressed close, completed by the representation of two snakes: one is under the feet of the goddess, the other is wrapped around the tree to the left. The superposition of these attributes borrowed from chthonic deities like Bacchus or Hecate, or from the traditional representation of Mercury, is characteristic of the Byzantine period. The latter incorporates the ancient mythological figures in the new Christian rationality by interpreting them as allegorical figures or as exemplary figures of virtues and vices. The superposition of the traditional representations of the ancient mythology figures answers thus to a radically different logic based on texts interpreted by Christian commentators or on a rewriting of the myths by Byzantine authors. The other side of the medallion depicts Bellerophon and Pegasus in repose. The hero stands upright at the center, in the foreground. The winged horse drinks in the background, beneath a tree that spreads toward the center of the scene. Bellerophon is seen in a three-quarter view in a contra posto position. He turns his head to the left and holds a pilum. The fading of the lower part makes the reading of the scenary difficult. A reclining figure lies at the foot of the hero. It is probably the chimera that the hero defeated.
This composition rather accurately refers to the iconography of the famous Bellerophon silver plate kept at the Musée d’art et d’histoire, in Geneva, and dated to the 6th century. The representation of the Chimera is missing on the plate. There are only a few representations of this scene and even less dated to the Byzantine period. One can mention only two other images of Pegasus and Bellerophon respectively dated to the late 4th-early 5th and to the 5th century: a contorniate medallion and an openwork ivory plaque, now in the British Museum, formerly in the Maskell collection (Vollbach n. 67). On these two representations, the man and the horse are shown in mid battle against the chimera.
The iconography of this medallion is therefore highly exceptional, not only concerning the preservation of a mythological representation, but also regarding the extreme rarity of the scene with Bellerophon and Pegasus. The shape of the jewel is extremely rare too. Only a few similar examples can be mentioned. A related necklace is preserved in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, in Washington (inv. 5826). The connecting element between the chain and the medallion is unfortunately lost. The medallion represents on one side the bust of an emperor and on the other, a standing Dionysus. The similar profane choice in the subjects of the medallion echoes the splendor of the greats of the time, when Classical culture was unashamedly in close contact with Christian representations.
The technique used in the medallion is also found in a number of other contemporary jewels (bracelets, fibulas, necklaces of another type, belts). These medallions sometimes copy the imperial medallions or introduce religious representations. Such is the case of a wedding belt from the 6th century representing the spouses and Christ on one side, and scenes linked to Nativity (Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds).
Besides the identical workmanship of the medallions, this belt gives excellent parallels for the interpretation of the small medallions mounted on the bracelet that comes with this necklace. The latter is composed of a large truncated ring, whose elegantly flared ends hold the hinges which maintain three pseudo-medallions. These are connected to each other and form a sort of chain. Two half-length representations of Fortune frame a figure wearing a vine-leaf crown and holding a staff. Fortune is easily identifiable through her traditional attributes (a crown, a cornucopia, wheat-ears, a rich adornment). The central figure resembles the representations of the small medallions of the foregoing wedding belt. These medallions alternate the profile of Tyche-Fortune with figures of the Dionysius companions crowned with vine-leaves and holding the thyrsus. The attitude and attributes tally with the figure of the central medallion of the bracelet. It is worth noting again the recurrent association of the Dionysiac procession with Tyche-Fortune.
Art market, prior to 1960;
Ex-European private collection, ca. 1960;
Swiss private collection acquired in 1993.
Baldini Lipp olis , I., l’Oreficeria nell’impero di Costantinopoli tra IV et VII secolo, Bari 1999, p. 36, fig. 15, p. 44, fig 19, p. 48, fig 22, p. 123, fig. 55,
pp. 139-140 and pp. 182-183.
Kalavre zou, I., Byzantine Women and their World, New Haven and London, 2003, pp.229-230, Nr. 131, and p. 251, Nr. 143-144.
Wamser , L., Die Welt von Byzanz, Europas östliches Erbe, Glanz, Krisen und Fortleben einer tausendjährigen Kultur, München, 2004, Nr. 484, 485, 500 and 505.
Durand , J., and alii , Byzance. L’art byzantin dans les collections publiques françaises, exhibition catalogue of the musée du Louvre, Paris, November 3,1992 –
February 1st 1993, p. 133, Nr. 89, and p. 134, Nr. 90.
Bellérophon and Pegasus:
LIMC, Vol. VII, Pegasos, vol. 1, p. 223, vol 2, fig. 139, 143, and 180.
Volbach , W. F., Elfenbeinarbeiten der Spätantike und des frühen Mittelalters, Main 1952, p. 44, Nr. 67, pl. 20.
Bracelet with pseudo-medallions:
Early Christian and Byzantine Art, exhibition catalogue of the Baltimore Museum of Art, April 25 – June 22, 1947, organised by the Walters Art Gallery,
Baltimore, 1947, pl. CXIX.