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Work Cup with Engraved Biblical Scenes

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Christian and Byzantine Art

Coupe à décor gravé de scènes bibliques

© 1999 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Christian and Byzantine Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

The Homblières Cup (Aisne, France) illustrates the development of the Christian decorative repertoire in the fourth century AD, the engraved decoration representing themes recurrent in Late Antiquity. The bottom of the cup has a Chi-Rho symbol surrounded by stars. On the sides are four scenes from the Old Testament set beneath a decorative arcade: Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, Daniel in the Lions' Den, Susannah and the Elders, and Daniel and the Dragon of Babylon.

The Homblières Tomb

This cup comes from a tomb discovered in 1883, at Abbeville in the commune of Homblières (Aisne). It was part of the array of funerary articles of the deceased, a woman of some fifty years of age. In the grave were found several items of jewelry and also a bronze basin. Coins of Julian (361-364) and Valentinian I (364-375) found in a neighboring tomb allow the burial and the funerary implements to be dated to the second half of the fourth century AD. The Homblières Cup may have been produced around the middle of the century.

Blown and Engraved Glass

The cup was made of blown glass, using a technique developed in the Eastern Mediterranean circa 50 BC, before spreading through the Roman world over the following centuries. The decoration was obtained by engraving the cooled glass. In their general conception, the wheel-engraved figurative motifs are drawn from silverware, and it has even been suggested that this cup may be a copy of a work in precious metal. The style of the engraving, the quality of the composition, and the treatment of detail recall the work of the Rhineland workshops, more especially of those in Cologne, which in the fourth century produced a vast number of similar pieces decorated with pagan, Christian and profane subjects. Yet there is nothing to identify this cup as the work of a Cologne glassmaker, and its place of manufacture remains unknown.

Old Testament Scenes

The cup is exceptional not only in its quality of execution, but also in its subject matter and composition as a frieze. This marks a break with the decorative syntax characteristic of most cups of the same type, which are adorned with a single scene. The ornamentation here illustrates the development of Christian decorative art, the artist having drawn on the themes of the Christian repertoire most often depicted in the fourth century, both on glass vessels and on sarcophagi. In the center of the cup he has placed a large Chi-Rho symbol surrounded by stars. Around this Christian monogram, four scenes from the Old Testament are set beneath a decorative arcade (or perhaps a series of highly stylized palms). Adam and Eve stand on either side of the Tree of Knowledge; on the trunk, the serpent, incarnation of evil and instigator of the original sin, invites them to partake of the forbidden fruit. The next scene shows the prophet Daniel in the lions' den in Babylon: according to the Bible (Daniel 6:22-23), he survived thanks to an angel who "shut the mouths of the lions," a prefiguration of Christ risen from the grave. Alongside is the chaste Susannah flanked by the two lascivious old men whom Daniel has sentenced to death for having unjustly accused the young woman of adultery - Susannah being the symbol of the soul protected and saved by God. The last episode, which probably shows Daniel poisoning the Dragon of Bel (Baal) is much less common in Christian imagery.

Technical description

  • Coupe à décor gravé de scènes bibliques

    IVe siècle après J.-C.

    Provenance : Abbeville, commune de Homblières, Aisne (tombe 52)

  • H. : 5,50 cm. ; D. : 21,50 cm.

  • Acquisition, 1887 , 1887

    The Homblières Cup

    MNC 919

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Mosaics gallery
    Room 30

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