Lot 8. Southern Italian, probably Palermo, Sicily, circa 1220-1240. An Important Cameo with the Ascension of the Prophet Elijah to Heaven from the Imperial Treasury of the Holy Roman Emperors. Estimate: 120,000 - 180,000 GBP. Lot sold: 801,500 GBP. Photo Sotheby's
chalcedony, within a mid-16th-century enamelled gold mount with arabesques, inscribed in Hebrew to the reverse: נעלה אליה לשמים [Elijah was raised to Heaven]; cameo: 27 by 28.6mm., 1.06 by 1.12in.,35.3 by 37.8mm., 1.4 by 1.39in.
Provenance: Imperial Treasury, Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, of the Holy Roman Emperors, Vienna, by 1619, in which year recorded in the inventory of Matthias, Holy Roman Emperor (1557-1619);
by descent in the Imperial Treasury of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors, Vienna;
dispersed from the Imperial Treasury between 1750 and 1927;
private collection Germany, until circa 2007;
the present owner, United Kingdom.
Literature; 1619 postmortem inventory of Matthias, Holy Roman Emperor (1557-1619), no. 2289, 'Ain agata, in gold und schwarz geschmölzt eingefast, mit dem triumpfwagen,
auf der andern seithen mit frembden buechstaben';
1750 inventory of the Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Vienna, 'Ein rundes
mitteres basrelief von onyx, worauf Elias, wie er in den himmel fahrt, ruckwerts eine
Hebreische schrift eingestochen, in gold gefast un schwarz geschmolzen';
Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses: 1899,
XCIV, no. 2289 (1619 inventory); and 1889, CCLVI, no.151 (1750 inventory).
Note: This exceptional cameo representing the ascension of the prophet Elijah is one of the most significant medieval glyptics to have appeared at auction in a generation. It is one of a handful of 13th-century Frederician engraved gems with Hebrew inscriptions, most of which are in public collections, including the Hermitage, the Cabinet des medailles and the Prado. These cameos were carved in the court of Frederick II, King of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor (1194-1250), by Jewish artisans or engravers with close Jewish associations, and possibly for the Emperor himself. The present cameo is distinguished by its provenance in the Imperial Treasury of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors, in which it is recorded as early as 1619 and was still present as late as 1750.
The cameo (hereafter the Elijah cameo) is engraved with Elijah ascending to heaven in a three-horse chariot, his face turned heavenward towards a winged angel, which guides the prophet to paradise. The scene is delimited by a layer of clouds, whilst Elijah's cloak flies from his back in a curling arc as if caught in a gust of wind; a visual allusion to Kings 2:11-14 in which the Prophet's mantle fell to the earth and was used by his heir Elisha to part the waters of the river Jordan. The engraver has carved the narrative scene out of the stone's upper dark brown layer, revealing a reddish golden brown ground, thereby giving the impression that Elijah's ascension is enveloped by divine fire (as is told in the Bible). To the reverse, a white layer bears a Hebrew inscription which gives literary commentary to the scene.
The Elijah cameo must be viewed through the lens of the reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen. Frederick II was the grandson of two of Europe's greatest rulers: Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Roger II King of Sicily. Raised in Palermo, his reign arguably represents the last vestige of multicultural Norman Sicily, in which Jews, Muslims and Christians had lived in peaceful coexistence. Frederick was fluent in six languages: Arabic, Latin, Greek, German, French and vernacular Sicilian; he probably also read Hebrew. He founded the University of Naples and cultivated an intellectual atmosphere at his court at Palermo, inviting Jewish scholars to translate texts and corresponding with foreign Muslim dignitaries. Frederick II is known for his relative tolerance of Muslims and Jews, though his record should be seen as a complex mix of toleration and persecution of both communities determined by his own interests and anti-papal ambitions.
Bust of Frederick II, Museo Provinciale Campano, Capua, image copyright A. Dagli Orti / De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman Images.
Frederick II was regarded by his detractors as 'the Antichrist', the 'limb of the devil' and the 'Punisher of the World', but has been remembered to posterity as 'Stupor Mundi': 'Wonder of the World'. Many scholars have characterised his reign as a 13th-century proto-Renaissance. The Elijah cameo is a product of the sophisticated intellectual milieu at Frederick's court. The gem is an intriguing relic of this singular cross cultural moment. It combines a revived interest in classicism with an Old Testament subject and Hebrew inscription, and is one of a small group of Frederician glyptics which scholars have suggested may have been executed by Jewish gem cutters or engravers with close Jewish links.
Engraved Gems at the Court of Frederick II
The reign of Frederick II saw revived interest in gem engraving. A number of cameos dating to the first half of the 13th century have been linked to Frederick's court at Palermo. These surviving glyptics underscore Frederick's wider concern for the classical past. As Dirk Booms and Peter Higgs have argued, 'classical influence is visible in … cameos and gems that were produced at Frederick's court, again with such skill that until a few decades ago most of them were identified as being actually Roman in date. A whole array of classical and mythological scenes... which must have been known to the court and the craftsmen from ancient examples, was used and copied, and new scenes created, sometimes depicting Christian scenes' (op. cit., p. 262).
One of the most remarkable gems is the cameo with Noah and his family entering the ark which was formerly in the collection of Piero the Gouty and his son Lorenzo the Magnificent and is now in the British Museum, London (inv. no. 1890,0901.15).
Cameo with Noah and his family entering the ark, Southern Italian, 13th century, British Museum, London, image copyright Trustees of the British Museum.
Numerous of the cameos depict eagles, which were a symbol both of the Hohenstaufen dynasty and the Norman kings of Sicily (and of course ultimately can be traced back to the Roman aquila); see, for example, those in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (inv. no. K-2141) and the Dino and Ernesta Santarelli collection at the Capitoline Museums, Rome (Booms and Higgs, op. cit., pp. 262-263, fig. 221).
The existence of several gems with eagle subjects is both a testament to the dynastic significance of this symbol to Frederick II and to his deep interest in falconry. Over the course of thirty years the Emperor wrote the De Arte Venandi cum Avibus, an extensive treatise on falconry and ornithology. This interest is again apparent in a beautiful cameo with a girl holding a falcon in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence (illustrated in Giuliano, op. cit., p. 144, fig. 25). The Bargello gem is stylistically close to the present Elijah cameo and may have been executed by the same hand. Note the comparable braids of hair, clenched fist and pointed nose. Other significant Frederician gems include the Hercules and the Nemean Lion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. no. 38.150.23).
Cameo with a girl holding a falcon, Southern Italian, 13th century, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.
Cameo with Hercules and the Nemean Lion, Southern Italian, 13th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Copyright Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The Frederician Gems with Hebrew Inscriptions
The Elijah cameo belongs to a small group of Frederician glyptics all of which have Hebrew inscriptions, and most of which depict Jewish subjects. Seven further cameos can be identified: cameo with the Brazen Serpent, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (inv. no. K-5632); cameo with King Jehu, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (inv. no. K-5633); cameo with Joseph and his Brethren, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (inv. no. K-690); cameo with Jacob blessing the brothers of Joseph (formerly with Galerie J. Kugel, 2000; private collection); cameo with Poseidon and Athena/ Adam and Eve in the Cabinet des medailles, BnF, Paris (inv. no. 27); and two cameos with King Ahasuerus respectively in Florence (Wentzel, op. cit.) and in the Spanish royal collection (now at the Museo del Prado, Madrid, inv. no. Ooooo41/012).
Cameo with King Jehu, Southern Italian, 13th century, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
The Elijah cameo is close to that with King Jehu in the Hermitage, which likewise shows a horse-drawn chariot guided by an angel in flight; they are based on the same model. This cameo bears a Hebrew inscription which translates as ‘long live the king’. It was acquired by Catherine the Great. There are certain variances between the two which can be explained by the narrative differences. In the Hermitage gem two figures populate the chariot which in turn is driven by four horses guided solely by the angel who holds all of the reins; King Jehu and his companion are thus mere passengers. Whereas in the present cameo Elijah ascends above a bank of clouds, the Hermitage example has a terrestrial context, with plants and animals lining the lower part of the scene. The two relate to a further gem in the British Museum which repeats the essential elements of the composition and appears also to represent Elijah, but lacks a Hebrew inscription (inv. no. 1856,0425.2). This cameo, which was catalogued by Dalton as late Antique (1915, op. cit., no. 5), was previously in the collection of the Anglo-Catholic antiquary Abbé James Hamilton (b. 1816). The present Elijah cameo and the Hermitage King Jehu gem are superior in terms of quality to the British Museum gem, but it is clear that the three share the same ultimate source and may have originated from the same workshop, though perhaps at different times.
Discussing the Hermitage Joseph and his Brethren gem and the Kugel Jacob's Blessing cameo, Rudolf Distelberger concluded that, 'the stylistic heterogeneity of the Hohenstaufen cameos can perhaps be explained by the fact that they were made by Jewish gem-cutters, themselves without any pictorial or iconographic tradition of their own, who worked from a broad palette of models. The Hebraic inscriptions carved into the white layer on the Jacob's Blessing cameo and the Joseph cameo are extremely accurate and would have required an exact knowledge of the quadratic script. Technically they are very difficult to carve'. (op. cit., no. VI. 30).
The existence of this small group of virtuoso Jewish gems adds depth and colour to the history of the Sicilian Jews under Frederick II Hohenstaufen and underscores their visible role in the life of his court.
The Hebrew Inscription on the Elijah Cameo
The Hebrew inscription to the reverse of the Elijah cameo may be translated as: Elijah was raised to Heaven. This spelling for the name Elijah is not uncommon and is already attested to in the Hebrew Bible itself, most famously in Malachi 3:23, where Elijah is referenced with this spelling ‘Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet’.
The word used in the cameo inscription for ‘sky’ or ‘heaven’ is common in the Old Testament, but raises complex questions about what happens when a person [Elijah] ascends to heaven; does he travel in body or spirit? Professor Shua Amorai-Stark has noted that by the 13th century, there was a widespread belief within medieval Judaism that Elijah acted as God’s emissary among the righteous, travelling between Heaven and earth to help the needy. This view was shared both by scholars and within the general community.
According to Prof. Amorai-Stark, the inscription is written in Sefardic letters; a script used by Iberian Jews in the Middle Ages. She has found parallels for most of the letters in contemporary manuscripts, but has not found all of the precise forms of the letters in the cameo inscription. On the basis of one unusual stroke, Prof. Amorai-Stark has suggested that a Jew of Sefardic origin wrote the three words in this cameo inscription to be given to the lapidary engraver. She has pointed out that throughout medieval Europe Jews were barred from certain professions, and these included gem engraving. However, it will be argued below that Frederick’s court was atypical. He extended certain privileges to the Sicilian Jews and he had a Jewish mintmaster. The idea of a Christian engraver working from a script prepared by a scholar (or person with scholarly interests) is nevertheless in line with the intellectual life of Frederick’s court, in which Sephardic Jews translated antique texts. Prof. Amorai-Stark has concluded that the Elijah cameo would have been in line with both contemporary Jewish beliefs regarding the role of Elijah and, from a Christian perspective, the idea that Elijah was a pre-figuration of Jesus Christ.
Sotheby’s is grateful to Professor Shua Amorai-Stark for her generous assistance in reading the Hebrew inscription on the Elijah cameo.
Jews and Muslim 'Saracens' in the Sicily of Frederick II
Manuscript with Frederick II, Italian School, 13th century, Biblioteca Apostolica, Vatican, image copyright Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City/Bridgeman Images
Frederick II's treatment of the Sicilian Jewish and Muslim communities has been a topic of scholarly debate. Jews and Muslims (referred to as ‘Saracens’) are often coupled in his legislation. In the Constitutions of Melfi (1231) Frederick states that the two groups are too severely punished simply due to their faith.
In his legislation, Frederick exempts the Jews from a prohibition on usury, arguing that Christian laws banning it should not apply to Jews. He also handed over the silk and dye monopolies to the Jewish community. However, his apparent tolerance needs to be considered in relation to Frederick's enforcement of the 1215 Lateran Council which stipulated that Jews must visually distinguish themselves from Christians; as without such precautions he believed that ‘the duties and the practices of the Christian faith will be confused’ (Kantorowicz, op. cit., p. 107). Whilst Frederick did extend legal and economic protections to Jews he did so often for his own fiscal advantage or as part of his lifelong anti-papal agenda.
On 28 December 1235 thirty-four Jews were burned to death by the residents of the German town of Fulda, which lay within Frederick's lands. Christians in Fulda had blamed the Jews for the deaths of five Christian brothers, perpetuating an Anti-Semitic fiction that accused the Jews of committing ritual murder of Gentiles. Frederick II came to Germany and sat in judgement over the case. He conducted a thorough investigation in which ultimately he appealed to Christian converts from Judaism for views on whether such practices took place. As David Abulafia has outlined 'The converts demonstrated that Jewish law did not permit human sacrifice, and Frederick then accepted that the charges were a fabrication: "We can surely assume that for those to whom even the blood of permitted animals is forbidden, the desire for human blood cannot exist, as a result of the horror of the matter, the prohibition of nature, and the common bond of the human species in which they also join Christians' (op. cit., p. 219). Frederick's ruling was significant for Jews across Europe as it fundamentally debunked the pernicious and widespread ritual murder myth. Moreover, his ruling underscored the common humanity shared by both Christians and Jews. The Emperor also showed his learning by basing his judgement in part on the Talmud, then reviled by the Papacy (Abulafia, op. cit., p. 219).
Jewish scholars were present at Frederick's court and it was through them that he became familiar with the works of Maimonides, who had died in 1205. Frederick's court astrologer Michael Scot had a Jewish secretary and brought in Sephardic Jewish translators, most of whom were members of the ibn Tibbon family. These included Jacob Anatoli, who translated Ptolemy's Almagest. Juda ben Salomon Cohen compiled an encyclopaedia of the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy and Alpetonius whilst at Frederick's court. The Emperor personally read drafts of a translation of Moamyn's De scientia venandi per aves, prepared by Scot’s successor. Describing Frederick's court, Ernst Kantorowicz concluded that 'this Renaissance-like "Academy", with its head the Emperor as ‘primus inter pares’, demonstrated how the free human mind, bridging all gulfs of race, religion and rank, acted as a levelling agency in the secular world just as - in a quite different direction - the faith of the Church acted in the spiritual world' (op. cit., p. 298).
Interestingly, the only Jew to hold an official position in Frederick’s government was his mintmaster, Gaudius (Dolan, op. cit., p. 170). This is possibly significant because of the historical connection between coin die engravers and gem carvers.
Frederick has been described as an ‘Islamophile’ (Booms and Higgs, op. cit., p. 257) on the basis of his contact with Muslim scholars from across the Islamic world. The most famous correspondence of this type is found in the Sicilian Questions, a treatise written by Ibn Sabin from al-Andalus in response to a series of questions sent to him by the Emperor. Frederick also corresponded with Fakhr al-Din, plenipotentiary in Baghdad for the Ayyuid sultan of Egypt, al-Kamil. This relationship proved to be important for Frederick later in his reign, since the two met at Jaffa in 1228-1229 during the Sixth Crusade and it was through Fakhr al-Din that Frederick successfully negotiated the surrender of Jerusalem. Despite these warm contacts with the Islamic world, Frederick would go on to deport all remaining Sicilian Muslims to Lucera on the Italian mainland; probably for domestic reasons and possibly also for the safety of the Muslims themselves (Booms and Higgs, op. cit., p. 258).
His relationships with both Muslims and Jews were driven by a mix of pragmatism and self interest. Distinction should also be drawn between the elite life of the court, with its intellectual freedoms and diplomatic outreach to a wider world, and the Emperor’s conflicting domestic priorities.
A Norman Lineage: the Mantle of Roger II and the Cloak of Elijah
Mantle of Roger II, Sicilian, 12th century, Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, image copyright Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
One of the most astonishing survivals from Norman Sicily is the so-called Mantle of Roger II or Robe of Roger, which is still in the Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Vienna (inv. No. XIII/14). A vast semi-circular sheet of heavy red Byzantine silk, the Mantle is embroidered with gold and silk thread and set with thousands of pearls, precious stones and enamels. The Mantle is centred by a palm tree (the Tree of Life) and is adorned with two ferocious lions trampling camels; an unmistakable metaphor for the triumph of the Christian Roger II over the Muslims. A Kufic inscription running around the border dates the robe to 1133/1134 and states that it was manufactured in the khizana, the royal workshops of the Norman palace in Palermo.
The robe post dates Roger II’s coronation, but was used in the coronations of each of the Holy Roman Emperors from the mid 13th century onwards. It descended to his grandson Frederick II who was crowned Roman German King at Mainz in 1212 and again at Aachen in 1215. Frederick was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome on 12 November 1220. It is unknown whether he wore the Mantle of Roger II for any of these coronations, though scholars have identified another 12th-century Sicilian robe, the so-called Pluviale of Charlemagne in St Stephen’s cathedral, Metz, as the likely candidate to have been worn for the coronation in Rome in 1220 (Distelberger, op. cit., p. 426).
Mantles were powerful signifiers of political and religious prerogative in the medieval period. As Eva Hoffman has outlined: ‘Since biblical and ancient times, mantles had been used as instruments for the designation and transmission of holiness and power and were worn by rulers and clergy as signifiers of authority. Also embedded in the mantle’s conferral and authentication of power was its protective function. Through the power conferred by the mantle and under the mantle of authority, the rulers and their realms received protection. Since, for the most part, the claim of authority was divine, the protection was considered divine as well’ (op. cit.).
In two Frederician gems depicting the coronation of Frederick II (musée du Louvre, Paris and Schatzkammer der Residenz, Munich; both illustrated in Giuliano, op. cit., p. 176, figs. 36-37) there is an emphasis on the vestments worn by the Emperor. The importance of coronation garments to Frederick is further attested to by the survival of a pair of bejewelled gloves and boots which date from his reign and, together with the Mantle of Roger II, formed the coronation ensemble worn by the Holy Roman Emperors until Francis II in the late 18th century (Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Vienna; inv. nos. XIII/6 and XIII/11).
The symbolism of mantles is explicit in the Biblical account of Elijah’s ascension, in which his disciple Elisha inherits the Prophet’s cloak, thereby becoming his heir:
[Elisha] picked up Elijah’s mantle, which had dropped from him; and he went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. Taking the mantle which had dropped from Elijah, he struck the water and said, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ As he too struck the water, it parted to the right and the left, and Elisha crossed over. When the disciples of the prophets at Jericho saw him from a distance, they exclaimed, ‘The spirit of Elijah has settled on Elisha!’ And they went to meet him and bowed low before him on the ground’
[KINGS II, 2.13-15].
In the present cameo, Elijah’s mantle can be seen flying from his back, about to be torn off by the wind and sent down to Elisha. The significance of this scene would have been apparent to any learned member of Frederick’s court, given the reverence of the robes made in the reign of his grandfather Roger II.
Mantle of Roger II, Sicilian, 12th century, Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, image copyright Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna.
The cloak was a powerful symbol of Frederick’s distinguished lineage as he faced battles with the Papacy and foreign princes throughout his reign. Members of the House of Hohenstaufen were preoccupied with dynastic legitimacy, as is seen in Rudolf von Ems’ Chronicle of the World (Weltchronik) (circa 1250), which was dedicated to Frederick’s son Conrad IV and seeks to legitimise the Hohenstaufen dynasty.
The Prophet Elijah would have appealed to Frederick II as both a figure of authority and also as a lawgiver. In Malachi 4:5-6 the Lord says: ‘Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse’. Frederick was a prolific lawmaker and took pride in being perceived as a fair judge, as was seen in the Fulda episode. Distelberger has linked another Frederician hardstone carving, the bust of Hadrian in the Al Thani collection, to Frederick’s legal reforms; like Elijah, Hadrian, one of the ‘good Emperors’, was associated with law and justice. Elijah was also a prominent figure in Jewish and Muslim mysticism which would have appealed to Frederick’s pluralistic outlook.
The symbolism of Elijah’s ascension in the present gem should be considered in conjunction with the King Jehu cameo in the Hermitage. This gem bears a Hebrew inscription which translates as ‘long live the king’. Just as Elisha was ordained by Elijah, so Jehu was anointed King of Israel by Elisha. Kingship and divinely sanctioned succession are therefore common themes in both cameos which share the same fundamental composition. It should be considered that the cameos may have formed part of a political narrative affirming Frederick II’s claim to the office of Holy Roman Emperor, which combined the secular and the divine spheres, and linked its holder to the classical past. The historical conflation of Elijah with the Messiah adds a Messianic dimension to the symbolism. Whilst Frederick II would never have sanctioned such blasphemy, it is interesting to note that one of the Jewish translators active in his court, Jacob Anatoli, dedicated his translations of Aristotle, Porphyry and Averroes to Frederick II ‘this friend of wisdom who maintains me’ and expressed a wish that the Messiah might appear in the Emperor’s reign (Kantorowicz, op. cit., p. 297).
The Classical and Early Christian Sources
Frederick II’s interest in classicism was made explicit in the minting of coinage modelled on Phoenician, Greek and, more strikingly, Roman coins from the Augustan period. These included the silver alloy denaro which bore the inscriptions: +.F..ROM.IP.SEMP and AVG / +.R.IERL.ET SICIL (Fredericus Romanorum Imperator Semper Augustus, Rex Ierusalem et Sicilie). The Augustan iconography was further developed in 1231 when Frederick issued a new gold coin, the augustalis, which resembles the Roman aureus of the early Imperial period and bear the inscriptions: CESAR AVG IMP ROM on one side and FRIDERICUS on the other centred by an eagle. As Booms and Higgs have commented: ‘The augustalis has received much interest from historians, because it was so different from any coinage before – in terms of concept, elegance and decoration – and proved to be hugely influential for the next few centuries… Most important, however, was that the coin was clearly modelled on classical coinage – specifically the aureas of the Roman Empire – in fabric, in design and in name. This was a full century before imitating classical antiquity to this extent became one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance. Some historians have thought that the coin specifically imitated an aureas of Augustus, the first and most famous of the Roman emperors, and indeed some similarities are apparent’ (op. cit., pp. 261-262).
Just as there was an interest in classical coinage at Frederick’s court, so was there a focus on ancient engraved gems. The composition for the Elijah cameo finds its ultimate source in ancient Roman engraved gems showing Victory or Aurora (Eos) driving a chariot through the sky. Compare, for example, with the Roman 1st-century cameo with Victory driving a two-horse chariot (biga) as winged cupid flies through the air holding a wreath, formerly in the Ludovisi collection and now in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (inv. no. 98.756). Note also the Roman 1st-century cameo with Eos flying through the air in her chariot in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (inv. no. 12421) or the Roman cameo with Aurora in the same museum (inv. no. 12738).
It is, however, interesting to note late antique representations of the ascension of Elijah which unsurprisingly draw on the same repertoire of motifs. A well preserved example of this iconography can be found on the side of the famous ‘City Gates Sarcophagus,’ carved in the closing decades of the 4th-century AD and formerly in the Borghese collection; now in the musée du Louvre, Paris (inv. no. MR 688). The relief show’s Elijah togate ascending to heaven on a quadriga, with the bearded personification of the river Jordan reclining below. A similar relief adorns another sarcophagus of the same date in the church of S. Ambrogio, Milan.
Interestingly the subject of Elijah’s ascension appears in a relief by the great Romanesque sculptor Benedetto Antelami (1150-1230; and workshop) on the façade of the Duomo di S. Donnino in Fidenza. This demonstrates wider contemporary interest in the story of the Prophet Elijah.
Gold augustale of Frederick II, Museo Civico degli Eremitani, Padua, Italy, image copyright A. Dagli Orti / De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman Images.
Cameo with Victory, Roman, 1st century BC/AD, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, image copyright Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The "City gates" sarcophagus, Roman, late 4th century AD, Louvre, Paris.
The Kaiserliche Schatzkammer
The Elijah cameo is recorded in the Imperial Treasury (Kaiserliche Schatzkammer) in Vienna in the inventory of the Holy Roman Emperor Matthias in 1619. It appears in the 1750 inventory of the Schatzkammer but is absent from Ernst Kris’ canonical catalogue, Die Kameen im Kunsthistorisches Museum, published in Vienna in 1927. The Habsburg family are known to have gifted small jewels from the treasury, which provides a plausible explanation for the absence of the Elijah cameo by 1927. The removal of the gem from the Treasury is likely to have happened prior to the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph (1848-1916) when much of the collection was unified in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
The core of the Imperial Treasury is formed by the insignia and jewels of the Holy Roman Empire. These include the 10th-century Imperial Crown made for Emperor Otto II, circa 978/980 (inv. no. XIII/13); the 8th-century Langobardian-Carolingian Holy Lance forged with a nail from the Cross of Christ and presented by Pope Hadrian to Charlemagne (inv. no. XIII/19); and the Bursa of St Stephen which is said to have contained earth saturated with St Stephen’s blood (inv. no. XIII/26). As Leithe-Jasper and Distelberger have outlined: ‘Also unique is the set of coronation robes belonging to the Imperial jewels. Apart from the Adlerdalmatik (eagle dalmatic) and the Stola (stole), all pieces come from the coronation vestments for the most part made by Arabian artists in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries for the Norman kings of Sicily. They eventually reached Frederick II by way of inheritance and through him were added to the Imperial treasure’ (op. cit., p. 8).
As has already been noted, the Mantle of Roger II had arrived in Germany certainly by 1250. The vestments are recorded in a document of King Conrad IV dated 17 September 1246 as ‘keyserliche zeychen’ (‘imperial signs’) confirming their symbolic importance within Frederick’s lifetime (he died in 1250). They then appear again in a document dated 12 March 1350 when they were handed over to the future Emperor Charles IV. The document describes the vestments as ‘heiligtum und dy cleymot des heiligen reichs (‘the sacred relics and the treasure of the Holy Empire’) (all the above quoted from Distelberger, op. cit., p. 436). The use of language underscores the dual nature of the Holy Roman Emperor’s role: his secular power was instituted by God and he was the inheritor of Rome. The vestments continued to be referred to as having been owned by Charlemagne; a further demonstration of their symbolic power as well as a possible attempt by later Emperors to erase the Hohenstaufen legacy (as proposed by Distelberger, op. cit., p. 436).
It is a remarkable fact that the Elijah cameo, with its Messianic and coronation symbolism, was appropriately for centuries in the same collection as the treasured vestments of the Holy Roman Emperors. Like the Mantle of Roger II, its presence in the Treasury may date back to the first half of the 13th century. This is certainly possible, since Frederick’s treasure is recorded as having been kept at Waldburg near Ravensburg between 1221-1226, under the supervision of the Emperor’s Grand Steward, Eberhard von Tanne. It is unknown whether this included his engraved gems, but it is a fair assumption that it would have included highly valued items of this type. The treasure was essentially itinerant, but it was evidently carefully guarded and its integrity may have been preserved in tact. It was placed in the fortress of Kyburg, near Winterhur by Rudolf of Habsburg after his coronation (1273), and was then at Trifels between 1292 and 1298 before returning to Kyburg. It then moved throughout Germany as it passed from ruler to ruler, travelling to Bonn, Basle and then Munich. In 1350 it was placed in the sacristy of St Vitus’ cathedral, Prague, by Charles IV, and was later installed in the fortress of Karlstein. By 1423 the vestments are recorded as being in Nuremberg under the reign of the Emperor Sigismund (Distelberger, op. cit., p. 426). By the 16th century the Treasure had been concentrated in Vienna by the Habsburgs.
The Imperial Treasury was formalised under the reign of Ferdinand I who, upon being crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1556, employed the Italian antiquary Jacob Strada (1507-1588) as administrator of the collections. It was probably at this time (or just prior) that the beautiful black enamelled gold mount with arabesques was added to the present Elijah cameo. The choice of mauresque motifs for the border appears to have been a deliberate one; it differs from many contemporary jewels with strapwork designs. The 16th-century mount therefore represents a curious further instance of a cross cultural connection, perhaps explained by the jeweller or patron considering the gem to be of eastern derivation because of the Hebrew inscription to the reverse. The mount nevertheless finds several comparables in jewellery from the mid 16th century. Compare with the similar enamelled mount seen on a jewel listed in 1561 in the Cabinet de Roi of Charles IX of France which had been acquired by François 1er from Simon Gaudin in 1538 (Princely Magnificence, op. cit., p. 48, no. 10). Compare also with the enamelled gold pendant set with an ancient profile cameo of the Emperor Tiberius in the Art Institute of Chicago, circa 1525-1560 (inv. no. 1992.297).
Cameo with Emperor Tiberius, Roman, 1st century AD, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, image copyright Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
It is interesting to consider that many of the Frederician cameos with Jewish subjects entered royal collections or were acquired by the greatest gem collectors. This may be explained by their virtuosity, subjects, or perhaps earlier provenances (though it is unknown if any of the other cameos also came from the Habsburg Imperial Treasury). The royal gems include the King Ahasuerus in the Prado, from the Spanish royal collection; and the Jacob blessing the brothers of Joseph, which may have been in the Portuguese royal collection. Finally, the Joseph and his Brethren gem in the Hermitage was once owned by Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador to Naples, and was later acquired by Catherine the Great of Russia.
The enchanting and mysterious Elijah cameo is a relic of the reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen. It combines the intellectualism of his court with the cross culturalism which came to define Sicily under his maternal forebears, the Norman Kings. The gem, which was evidently carved by Jewish gem cutters or engravers with close Jewish ties, is a testament to the role of Sephardic and Sicilian Jews in the life of Frederick's court.
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Sotheby's. Small Wonders: Early Gems and Jewels, London, 16 December 2020