Hellenistic silver bowl with gilded acanthus tondo
Period: Late 3rd - 2nd century B.C.
Material: Gilded silver
Dimensions: Height: 7.9 cm, diameter: 25.8 cm
Ex-British Private Collection; private European collection; acquired on the Swiss Art Market in 1993.
The piece is intact: on the inside, it is partially covered with black oxidation, while some encrustations remain on the outside, near the rim. The tondo (on which traces of hammering are visible) might have been filled with an inlaid element.
It was made from a somewhat thick, single piece that would have been cast and finished on a wooden or stone core, rather than worked by hammering a sheet of metal. The finishing touches (chiseling, polishing, gilding) were subsequently cold-worked. On the outside, the incisions formed by the decorative motifs can be seen in negative. All the inner and outer decorated parts are highlighted by the gilding.
The cup, much larger in size than average, is wide and rather low with a regular, linear profile, while the edge is simply rounded. This shape recalls the Greek phialai, but it has neither shoulder nor lip.
The main decorative pattern is on the inside. Outside the central tondo, a first rim of five large acanthus leaves rises from a golden circle; the toreut perfectly organized the available area, since the left corner of each leaf overlaps with the right corner of the previous leaf and hides it. A second series of leaves, which are narrower but encompass a more embossed profile, appears in the background, alternating with those of the main row. This special arrangement of acanthus leaves recalls the bell of a Corinthian capital and creates a remarkable trompe l’oeil effect, since the observer stands exactly in the place of the shaft of the column.
Each leaf’s veins are beautifully rendered by a vertical central incision, from which radiate slightly curved lines indicating the lateral nervures, whilst small dots mark the roughness of the plant’s surface. The outline of the leaves are dentate.
A golden line with a row of small incised circles frame the central medallion. Near the lip is a garland composed of three different patterns (horizontal acanthus leaves, interlaced design, plant wreath), repeated four times; at the same height, but on the outside, there is another frieze displaying a motif of crossed crescent moons (interlacing).
This form of cup certainly has a Near Eastern origin, but it was very popular during the Hellenistic period in many parts of the ancient world. Related examples are found in Magna Graecia, Greece, Egypt, Near East, Iran and even in Bactria. Examples all over the Western world generally have a smaller diameter and are mostly deeper than their lower, wider counterparts manufactured in the East, which are perfectly exemplified by our work. The presence of a large tondo, often in more or less thick relief, and inlaid, is another distinctive feature of Western cups (New York collection, from Magna Graecia).
The serrations of the acanthus leaves are usually of the pointed type in the Hellenic world, but rounded in the Near East (acanthus known as “Seleucid”). The intermediate type, which can be related to that of this medallion, also exists in architecture (Corinthian capitals from the 2nd century B.C. excavated at Ai Khanum, in ancient Bactria). The gilded central motifs with several wreaths composed only of acanthus are rare, but they are documented on other Eastern Hellenistic cups.
Such vessels were considered great luxury items and would be part of the treasure of a temple and therefore serve for libations or belong to wealthy individuals, even to senior officials who would used them as gifts between peers; whilst other examples were probably intended for a funerary context.
VON BOTHMER D. (ed.), Glories of the Past: Ancient Art from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection, New York, 1990, p. 192, n. 138.
MERTENS J.R. (ed.), Greece and Rome, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 80, n. 60 (from Magna Graecia).
OLIVER A. Jr. (ed.), Silver for the Gods, 800 Years of Greek and Roman Silver, Toledo, 1977, pp. 80-83, n. 44-46 (Iran).
For the treasures acquired by the Paul Getty Museum, see:
PFROMMER M., Metalwork from the Hellenized East: Catalogue of the Collections, Malibu, 1993, p. 21ff. and p. 116ff.
Other examples of intermediate or multi wreathed acanthus leaves:
Christie’s, London, 5 juillet 1995, p. 88, n. 181 (silver cup).
GUILLAUME O., Fouilles d’Aï Khanoum, vol. II, Les propylées de la rue principale, Paris, 1983, p. 36, pl. 26).