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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston debuts new gallery showcasing gems and jewelry of the ancient Mediterranean
Cameo with portrait busts of an Imperial Julio-Claudian couple, mid-1st century A.D. Sardonyx. Henry Lillie Pierce Fund. Photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston opened a new gallery of Gems and Jewelry of the Ancient Mediterranean with more than 250 beautiful objects, many of them precious and rare. Half of the works are gems from the Museum’s world-class collection of about 700 Greek and Roman gems, considered the finest in the United States. The other half of the gallery showcases brilliant examples of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman jewelry, such as one of the MFA’s most famous pieces, the renowned 4th-century BC Earring with Nike driving a two-horse chariot, a masterpiece in gold. To enhance the appreciation of these works, new magnifying devices were specially designed for this gallery, which allows visitors to view the objects up close. Also displayed are a selection of works (a painting, sculpture, and decorative items) representing ancient women wearing jewelry, such as a funerary portrait of a young woman from Roman Egypt and a funerary relief from Palmyra, the great trading city in Syria that linked the Roman Empire to the East. In addition, a video of a contemporary gem maker using ancient techniques to carve a gem is presented in the gallery. Located on Level 2 of the MFA’s George D. and Margo Behrakis wing, this is the Museum’s second gallery dedicated to jewelry. It opens a year after the debut of the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation Gallery.

“For the first time these ancient jewels are brought together and treated as a distinct group. They create an intimate and sparkling gallery,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “This treasury of ancient jewelry adds a new dimension to the Museum’s displays, emphasizing precious materials and exquisite craftsmanship.”

In Greek, Roman, and Etruscan society, jewelry was worn by women, men, children, and even representations of the gods. Appreciated for its beauty, it also signaled prestige, fashion, or a personal connection to religious cults and worship. To people in the Classical world, jewelry was treasured as an artistic medium and as a symbol of portable wealth. Some also believed jewelry possessed magical properties to heal and protect. A fascinating group of magical gems, recently researched and uncovered in storage at the MFA, reveals magical spells and monsters; others gems include invocations to Adonai (Hebrew word for God or Master), as personal appeals to greater powers. Gold jewelry and carved gems were decorated with various gods and goddesses that associated the wearer with their favorite Olympians, a favorite philosopher, or their emperor.

The origins of the still popular cameo technique—whereby ancient jewelers used the unaided eye along with a few tools to create extraordinarily detailed and dazzling works of art—also is explored in the gallery. The earliest cameos come from Alexandria under the Ptolemies, rulers who sought to have their portraits carved in miniature into precious gems. Many portraits of Roman rulers survive in cameo and offer a miniature counterpart to the marble portraits that were the hallmark of Roman art, such as Cameo with portraits of a Roman emperor and his wife (Roman, mid-1st century AD), which shows an emperor with the edge of his toga pulled over his head in an attitude of piety. It is made of sardonyx and executed in exceptionally high relief. Another important cameo in the collection is the onyx Cameo with head of Medusa (Roman, 2nd–3rd centuries AD), depicting the famous gorgon, Medusa, who would turn onlookers into stone.

“To showcase these exquisite works, we wanted to create a memorable and dramatic visitor experience with a jewel-box effect that will compel return visits and inspire wonderment,” said Christine Kondoleon, the MFA’s George D. and Margo Behrakis Senior Curator of Greek and Roman Art, who organized the gallery.

The best known object is undoubtedly the Nike earring, measuring almost two inches. It represents the winged goddess of Victory (in Greek Nike) driving a two-horse chariot. When worn, either as an earring for a cult statue or by a priestess or royal personage, it dangled from the ear and dazzled with its dynamic movement—the wheels of the chariot actually spin. Made of more than 100 pieces of gold soldered together to create a masterful miniature sculpture, it is a technical tour de force. Also from the same period of expert Greek gold production, the fourth century, are two gold wreaths made from paper-thin gold inspired by natural oak and laural leaves.

The Gems and Jewelry of the Ancient Mediterranean Gallery is featured in two stops on the MFA Guide. One highlights the MFA’s priceless Earring with Nike driving a two-horse chariot, magnifying the earring and describing how it was made. Another, the Cameo of Medusa, explaining how cameos are carved and discussing other representations of Medusa in art history, such as the MFA’s John Singer Sargent mural of gods and heroes in the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Rotunda and Colonnade.

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