Double cameo, woman’s head

WB.186     1400–1500 • cameo

Curator's Description

Double cameo; onyx mounted in enamelled gold; one face: white, bust of young woman, face to right; other side: Virgin seated on cushion, crowned and nimbed, holding naked Child on her knee; his hand raised in benediction; all in the brown layer; gold mount enamelled on both sides with strapwork enclosing gold scrolls; each side set with two rubies and emeralds.

This object was collected by Anselm von Rothschild and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

3.2 cm wide, 5.1 cm high, 1.3 cm deep, and it weighs 20g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1986:-

Origin: Attributed to three periods:

(i) the bust (on the front) carved in an Italian workshop, probably in the first half of 15th century;

(ii) the Virgin and Child (on the reverse) carved subsequently in a Franco-Flemish or Netherlandish centre, probably in the second half of 15th century;

(iii) the gem-set and enamelled gold mount added by a goldsmith in north-west Europe, perhaps Antwerp, c. 1530-50.

Provenance: Baron Anselm von Rothschild, Vienna, before 1866.

Commentary: A double cameo (that is, a gemstone carved in relief on both faces) is rarely found, especially among the extant engraved gems of the Renaissance. One of the finest and best documented examples by an Italian artist in the 1520s is the onyx Hercules and Omphale in a gem-set and enamelled gold pendant given by Emperor Charles V to Pope Clement VII (d. 1533) who later presented it to the Piccolomini family; it is now preserved in the British Museum (see Hugh Tait (ed. And contrib.), ‘The Art of the Jeweller, A Catalogue of the Hull Grundy Gift to the British Museum: Jewellery, Engraved Gems and Goldsmiths’ Work’, London, 1976, p. 233, no. 387, 2 figs, and ‘Princely Magnificence, Court Jewels of the Renaissance, 1500-1630’, ed. A. Somers Cocks, exh. cat., Victoria and Albert Museum (Debrett’s Peerage Ltd), London, 1980, p. 47, no. 6, colour pl., but, unfortunately, reversed). Whereas both the Hercules bust (on the front) and the head of Omphale (on the back) appear to be the work of the same artist and to have been intended from the beginning, the Waddesdon double cameo is clearly the work of two hands, apparently from two very different artistic traditions. These discrepancies of style have always provoked debate, and in each publication of the jewel the uncertainties surrounding its origins have been discussed, without offering more than a very tentative explanation; indeed, by 1927, when Dalton brought out the revised second edition of ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, the cameo was catalogued as if both sides were produced by the same artist, and although not attributed to any workshop or country, it is stated to be the work of the “15th century; the mount, 16th century”.

In Read 1902 the front of the cameo with the bust of the young woman was published as “probably late Byzantine work”, but in Dalton 1915 it was argued that “the broad and rather clumsy head is disproportionately large for the body, and the treatment of the whole makes it improbable that the bust is either late-antique or Byzantine. It is perhaps an early work of the Italian Renaissance”. Few, if any, would today disagree with Dalton's re-attribution of this cameo and, on stylistic grounds, it would seem to be the product of an Italian gem-engraver in the first half of the fifteenth century. It is difficult to date it more precisely because it is still not possible to determine in what workshop it was carved. If the workshop was in Florence or in some other progressive centre, like Rome, where the requisite patronage existed, a date in the second quarter of the fifteenth century would, undoubtedly, not be too early. The artist of this bust of a young woman was well acquainted with Classical gems, even though he fundamentally - and perhaps subconsciously - re-interpreted the head in terms of the artistic criteria of the Early Renaissance. Consequently, his treatment suggests that transitional phase, when the impact of the Classical sources was so strongly felt that the process of assimilation had not yet been completed. The result, as with this cameo, can be confusing and difficult to analyse. Fortunately, there has survived in Paris at the Musée du Louvre (MR 56; B.J. 1869) a very similar cameo of a young woman, which was most recently described by Daniel Alcouffe (in ‘Les Fastes du Gothique, le siècle de Charles V’, 1981, p. 210, no. 170(6), with bibliography): “Agrippine l'ancienne; sardonyx à deux couches; h. 0.063. Rome, 1er siècle.” This Roman cameo differs in that it is a perfect oval, the treatment of the sleeveless tunic suggests more convincingly the form of the breasts beneath, the hair is lower on the forehead and is parted over the right eye so that it is taken sideways in a succession of waves to fall in tresses on to the shoulders at either side. Nevertheless, the tilt of the head (in reverse), the cutting off of one shoulder closer than the other and the rather thoughtful expression of the face and general proportions are strikingly similar. The Renaissance artist has copied the mouth and even the eyes to some extent, but both in these features and in the hair and drapery he reveals his weaknesses and his new approach to the subject.

Fortunately, the history of this Paris cameo has been traced back convincingly to 1412, when it belonged to Jean, duc de Berry (d. 1416). He was an avid collector of cameos and intaglios, a passion he shared with his brother, the King of France, Charles V. The duc de Berry's collection was partly left unmounted, though some engraved gems were set in finger-rings, and a number, including some of the larger ones, were attached to reliquaries and, in particular, to his 'croix au camahieu', which had in the centre a fine cameo 'à deux têtes' that his brother, the Duke of Burgundy, had given him. When Jean de Berry founded the Sainte-Chapelle at Bourges, he made lavish presentations, including 'une croix aux camées'; when the latter was destroyed in 1412, he commissioned another from his goldsmith, Hermann Rince (or Ruissel), and this work has been convincingly identified with the cross set with nine cameos described in the 1564 inventory of the Sainte-Chapelle de Bourges. The front of this bejewelled, silver-gilt cross had a figure of Christ in gold, a relic of the True Cross and four cameos at the extremities, while the back was enriched with five more cameos, one of which was placed in the centre. During the French Revolution the cross was destroyed, but the nine cameos were saved and entered the Musée du Louvre. In 1981 they were all included in the catalogue to the exhibition ‘Les Fastes du Gothique’, when seven of the nine were described as Classical, one was attributed to a workshop in Southern Italy during the thirteenth century, and the other to an artist working “dans l'entourage de la cour de France à la fin du XIVe siècle ou vers 1400”. The last attribution is particularly interesting because it is suggested that the cameo (no. 170(9)) depicts in profile a young prince of the time of Augustus or Tiberius wearing not only a laurel wreath but a swathe of drapery (a toga?) over the rear part of his head - a combination that is impossible in the Classical period. Furthermore, it is claimed that the very high quality of the carving is in a style evocative of medieval works of art and that the cameo is 'un pastiche d'antique'. (For further discussion see ‘Die Zeit der Staufer’, exh. cat. Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart, 1977, pp. 679-81.)

In the light of M. Alcouffe's thesis about the origin of the onyx cameo of a young prince with a crown of laurels, the existence of medieval connoisseurs like Jean, duc de Berry, who would acquire fine cameos carved by contemporary artists in the Antique style, seems to be established beyond dispute; equally, it appears that artists of this quality, knowledgeable about Classical engraved gems, were available to work for the leading princes of Europe in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The tradition undoubtedly continued, particularly in Italy in the circle of Ghiberti in Florence, as well as in Milan and Rome.

The style of the bust of the young woman on the Waddesdon cameo shares none of the characteristics which M. Alcouffe recognises as 'medieval' on the cameo of the young Roman prince with laurel wreath. All the details in which it differs from its Classical original are indicative of an Italian, perhaps Florentine, origin in the second quarter of the fifteenth century.

Turning now to the reverse, the cameo of the Virgin and Child is carved in such low relief that it seems both feasible and probable that it was executed at a slightly later date and was simply carved out of the thickness of the dark brown layer of the onyx. Examples of this practice are understandably rare, but in the major collections of engraved gems the odd survivor is preserved; in 1967 the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg acquired a particularly handsome oval specimen Inv. no. 1967,223/ St. 256). On the front is a double profile portrait of a Roman Emperor and his wife (perhaps Caesar and Livia) executed in high relief in the manner of the Classical originals but attributed to a workshop in Milan, c. 1500; on the reverse is a later carving in low relief, within the dark brown strata, of St George on horseback slaying the Dragon. It has been suggested by Jörg Rasmussen (in ‘Bildführer 3, Ausgewählte Werke aus den Erwerbungen, 1962-1971’, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, 1972, pp. 160-1, 2 figs) that it was added by a knight of the Order of the Garter, and the carving, therefore, was executed in England in the second half of the sixteenth century. Although a very attractive interpretation, there is little evidence to show that gem-engraving of this fine quality was carried out in Elizabethan England, but it could have been done on the Continent, either for a foreign knight of the Garter, like the Danish King, Frederik II, who was made a knight in 1580, or for an English knight who was on the Queen's service at some major European court.

An equally personal wish of the fifteenth-century owner of the Waddesdon cameo might have led to the reverse being carved with the Virgin and Child in very low relief. Some special devotional reason could easily account for the decision, but it would seem that the owner now had access to a different workshop, probably in the Netherlands or in some Franco-Flemish centre. The court of the Regent, Margaret of Austria, at Malines was a great centre of patronage, but it is possible that the Virgin and Child had already been carved before the last quarter of the fifteenth century, for the distinguishing characteristics of the carving are to be found in Netherlandish paintings of the decades around the middle of the century. Perhaps the most striking similarities are to be found in the small panel painting of ‘The Holy Family with Joachim and Anna’, which has been in the Elector of Saxony's Picture Gallery in Dresden since before 1747, when it was described in the Guarienti Inventory (1747-50). In many of its details this picture reminds one of the way in which the gem-engraver has rendered the group on a much smaller scale - in particular, the figure of the Virgin forming a solid silhouette within which the Child is contained, the wearing of a crown despite the homely interior, the high forehead and the falling hair, the oval face with its expressionless, detached, almost remote, passivity and the naked Child, legs dangling between the Virgin's knees, the holding of the Child with both hands slightly raised, the frontal arrangement with drapery falling to the floor to cover feet and furniture, the mantle held by a brooch, and the rectangular pattern on the floor in the foreground.

This Dresden painting belongs to the second half of the fifteenth century but in the treatment of the group of the Virgin and Child it is merely conforming to a Netherlandish tradition in which the great Jan van Eyck's ‘Chancellor Rolin Madonna’ of c. 1435 (Musée du Louvre) is by far the most memorable example. Seen from the viewpoint of the Chancellor Rolin in that famous painting, the Virgin and Child group would have had a very similar composition: the Child's right hand is raised in blessing and the Virgin holds the Child with both hands straight in front of her; her oval face is expressionless, and the eyelids seem unusually prominent as they half hide the eyes. The cushion on which she sits is just visible to the right of her voluminous mantle which falls to the ground in heavy folds, not so different from the tiny cameo's drapery. Again it is an interior scene, albeit palatial, and again the Virgin is shown with a crown, although it is held by an angel just above her hair.

This peculiarly Netherlandish treatment of the figure group of the Virgin and Child cannot be easily paralleled in the art of other countries. In Italy the fame of Donatello's seven large bronzes for the High Altar of S. Antonio, Padua, was so great that mention should be made of the central group of the Virgin and Child (see J. Pope-Hennessy, ‘Italian Renaissance Sculpture’, London, 1957, pp. 280-3, pl. 22, figs. 26-7). Most exceptionally in Italian Renaissance art the Virgin is depicted by Donatello in a strangely stiff, almost hieratic, frontal arrangement holding with both hands the Child, naked with its legs dangling, straight in front. The Virgin is crowned, although the hair is pulled back as it falls. However, she is seated in an elaborate throne, and the drapery is arranged in a very different and more vertical manner. Indeed, the proportions are so much more narrow and tall that an elongated effect is achieved that bears no relationship to the Netherlandish examples. Despite the apparent superficial similarities, the very different quality and overall effect serve merely to emphasise the improbability of this gem-engraver finding a source of inspiration for his group in Florentine Early Renaissance art.

The case for arguing that the reverse of the cameo was carved north of the Alps in the second half of the fifteenth century, probably in the Netherlands, is strengthened by the existence of a small onyx cameo of the Virgin and Child under a Gothic canopy in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Inv. no. 7540-1861). This gem, apparently of the second half of the fifteenth century, is so similar in style and in technique of engraving that the same workshop, if not the same artist, may have produced them.

The Victoria and Albert gem was referred to in Dalton 1915; Dalton did not suggest where it had been made, but he clearly regarded it as contemporary with the Waddesdon Virgin and Child. The history of the Victoria and Albert Museum gem has not been traced before 1860, when it was published by J. C. Robinson (‘Catalogue of the Collection of M. Uzielli’, London, 1860, no. 324). It was then set in the cover of a German or Scandinavian silver cup of the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century belonging to Matthew Uzielli, of London, and was sold in the following year (lot 656 of the 1861 sale of the Uzielli Collection). It was purchased by the South Kensington Museum, as it was then called. There is no reason to suppose that the gem had not been set in the cover during the cup's manufacture, and therefore that the gem was available and perhaps even carved in northern Europe, in the Baltic area. Robinson attributed it to a Flemish or German workshop and in C. W. King, ‘Handbook of Engraved Gems’, London, 1885 (p. 136) it is dated after 1500. In a typescript catalogue (1935) of the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection of engraved gems compiled by E. Machell Cox (kept in the Department of Sculpture) it is described as “Franco-Flemish, end of 15th century” (part II, p. 107).

The crown worn by the Virgin fits snugly under the centre ogee arch of the triple-arched canopy. It has a similar band of beading (or pearled border), although it sits lower on the forehead than in the Waddesdon cameo. The hair is long but the tresses are less formally arranged and there is no halo. However, the same technique of engraving the eyes - almost gouged out - the same expressionless oval face and hieratical pose of both Virgin and Child are immediately obvious. Indeed, the Child is strikingly close, especially the head, eyes, hair and limbs. The Virgin holds the Child in the same way, and although there is less room behind the low parapet, her mantle has similar folds that fill the entire area, hiding whatever cushion she may be seated upon. Curiously, the area within the oval of the cameo but outside the architectural frame has been polished and left plain.

The same treatment of the oval area occurs on one other cameo in this tiny group. It is an onyx Virgin and Child, measuring 2.3 x 1.8 cm, in the Hermitage, Leningrad, and was most recently published in 1973 (Ju. Kagan, ‘Western European Cameos in the Hermitage Collection’, Leningrad, p. 55, no. 1). Judging from the photographs, the Hermitage cameo and the Victoria and Albert gem are extraordinarily alike, for the Leningrad Virgin and Child are similarly rendered and tightly contained within a Gothic architectural structure of similar design. It entered the Hermitage in 1813 from the J. B. Mania Collection (no. K. 725) and was previously published by Wirenius-Matzoulevitch, but in Kagan's 1973 catalogue it is attributed to “France, early 13th century”. Neither the architectural nor the figural treatment would accord with such an early dating, and as this cameo so closely repeats many of the distinguishing features of the Victoria and Albert gem, it would seem to belong to this tiny group of Netherlandish engraved gems of the second half of the fifteenth century.

The slightly irregular shape and elongated oval form of the Waddesdon double cameo are found from time to time, for example in the well-known cameo of Mary, Queen of Scots(?), c.1560 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris), which has a rather similar type of gold frame enriched with enamel and precious stones with simple table-cuts (see Joan Evans, ‘A History of Jewellery, 110-1870’, London, 1970 (rev. edn), p. 119, pl. 92b, and Yvonne Hackenbroch, ‘Renaissance Jewellery’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, New York and Munich, 1979, p. 84, figs 206A and B). The frame of the Waddesdon double cameo is probably slightly earlier in design and taste. Indeed, the Mary, Queen of Scots, cameo has a frame that has abandoned the popular mauresque pattern of the 1520-40s for a more pure Renaissance motif- the 'egg-and-dart' - in the Classical manner.

Finally, the commercial ties between Italian cities, like Florence, and Flemish towns, like Bruges, were at this time close and led to some fruitful cultural exchanges. One tangible example on a particularly magnificent scale is the great Portinari Triptych (in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence), that masterpiece painted by Hugo van der Goes (c. 1440-82) in Bruges between 1476 and 1478 on commission from the agent of the Medici, Tommaso Portinari, who was living there at the time with his wife, two sons and a daughter. When subsequently it was sent back to Florence, it was placed on the High Altar of S. Egidio. This exceptionally grand demonstration was echoed in countless smaller ways throughout the fifteenth century, and it is now suggested that this double cameo is one such manifestation.


  • Franz Schestag, ‘katalog der Kuntsammlung des Freiherrn Anselm von Rothschild in Wein’ Vienna, 1866, no. 344
  • Charles Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 186, pl. XL
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘Catalogue of the Engraved Gems of the Post-Classical Periods in the British Museum’, London, 1915, nos 17 and 426, pp. 4 and 58
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 186
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 1., The Jewels', British Museum, London, 1986, no. 43, pl. VIIB, figs. 188-190.
  • References

    1. Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
    2. Dalton 1915: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, Catalogue of the Engraved Gems of the Post-Classical Periods in the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography in the British Museum., London, BMP, 1915
    3. Dalton 1915: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, Catalogue of the Engraved Gems of the Post-Classical Periods in the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography in the British Museum., London, BMP, 1915
    4. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    5. Tait 1986: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; I The Jewels, London, BMP, 1986

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