Zeus, 2nd-1st cents. BC. Hellenistic. Joseph Smith; from whom acquired by George III. RCIN 65600. The Royal Collection © 2012,
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Sardonyx: brown and white; open gold mount with quatrefoil reverse, suspension loop and ring - 6.4 x 4.9 cm (with loop H 7.4 cm).

Bust of Zeus, mythological Greek king of the gods, facing to the right and wearing the aegis (Zeus aigiochos). The scaly feathered protective aegis lies over the dress, which shows at the right shoulder and on the chest. It is fastened round the neck by two scaly thongs and fringed with tiny snakes. At the bottom right break, where the stone is cut back to the white, the edge of the hair of a gorgoneion becomes visible. The nose is considerably undercut, the back of the cameo is rough and slightly convex.

About two thirds of the oval cameo is missing but this fragment remains one of the finest surviving Hellenistic cameos. The brilliant naturalism of the curling hair and beard, even the bristling scales of the aegis, contrast strongly with the drier, more linear treatment of features on imperial cameos. In comparison this florid treatment suggests that the cameo is still a product of the Hellenistic period, second-first centuries BC. The aegis draped mainly over one shoulder is a type adopted in the Hellenistic period and continued on Roman figures.

This gem is from the collection of Consul Joseph Smith of Venice and was acquired by George III with the Consul’s paintings, drawings, books, manuscripts and medals in 1762. (Text adapted from Ancient and Modern Gems and Jewels in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen, London, 2008).