Sunday, June 14, 2015


Attilio Mastrocinque, Les intailles magiques du département des Monnaies Médailles et Antiques. Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2014. Pp. 255. ISBN 9782717726084. €120.00 (pb).

Reviewed by David Frankfurter, Boston University (

Version at BMCR home site

This beautifully produced and broadly representative collection of magical gems from Paris's Département des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques can now serve students of ancient Mediterranean religion and material culture as the "go-to" book for acquainting oneself with this curious tradition. By reproducing over five hundred inscribed gems in color, Mastrocinque and the Bibliothèque Nationale have contributed to a real change in the discussion of these artifacts, which has long revolved around their bizarre iconography, its implications for the health of religion in late antiquity, and relationships between the gems and the Greek Magical Papyri. Thus the black and white or hand-traced reproductions of the gems' images in Campbell Bonner's Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly Graeco-Egyptian(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1950), Armand Delatte and Philippe Derchain's Les intailles magiques gréco-égyptiennes (Paris: BNF, 1964), and even Simone Michel's recent Die magischen Gemmen im Britischen Museum(2 vols.; London: British Museum Press, 2001) stressed the often bizarre arrangements of hybrid gods, mysterious charakteres and voces magicaeto the exclusion of the appearance of the gem — its colors, dimensionality, and visual integration. The very materiality of hematite, jasper, and cornaline was noted but had to be imagined.

To be sure, Mastrocinque has also organized the stones according to iconographic theme — types of gods and narrative vignettes — and as such has not himself moved the discussion into a new paradigm. But the vivid color reproductions (mostly full-size) demand our renewed attention to the integration of image and material—integration by craftsman, ritual specialist, client, and tradition. One especially provocative model for imagining this integration was recently introduced by Christopher Faraone1: that the iconographic carvings oriented or framed the traditional powers of the stone itself, which was doubtless also used in an uninscribed state to heal on its own. Thus a sequence of stages can be inferred: from an ailment to the procurement of the stone, through an expert's meticulous carving, to its range of applications to the client's body. The Mastrocinque collection encourages this kind of historical modelling: how might the discussion of gems be further advanced through a different organization of the artifacts themselves—by stone, for example, or by ailment (both hemorrhage and uterine afflictions were quite common uses of the carved gems)? Mastrocinque rightly notes in the Introduction that the very "genre" of magical gem differed from papyrus, ivory, or clay amulets largely by their ritual function, to be applied directly to the body, to affect symbolically particular organs. On the other hand, the peregrinations of these inscribed gems through culture as commodities probably led to all types of uses: public and secret, cosmetic and therapeutic.2

Otherwise the Introduction perpetuates some of the more antiquated impressions of a world of ancient magic deviant and heterodox. While admitting the exotic, even monstrous position that the gems acquired over centuries of modern European collecting and study, Mastrocinque (13-14) associates them with magi, that murky and largely imagined class of Oriental priests, more popular in ancient novels than historical documents, and even with "non-Orthodox currents of Judaism" (130), a line of speculation he pursues especially imaginatively with the snake-headed Chnoubis gems (94) but which means little vis-à-vis a religion that had no orthodoxy. The hybrid iconographies of the gems, he argues, should properly point us to the new hybrid theologies and doctrines of the Greco-Roman period. This is perhaps an improvement over the label "Gnostic" that used to be plastered over the weirdest gems. But we might better attribute them to the evolving scales, strategies, and functions of iconography — to the visuality of the thing itself and how that thing might be situating broader iconographic traditions for medical purposes. For Mastrocinque, however, the weirdness of the gems must derive from some textual tradition: not only manuals for their crafting (15) but even specific Christian heresies (194, 239). Here Campbell Bonner's more nuanced discussion of religious interactions in the world of the gems is to be preferred, even if he too stepped away from their material and visual integrity. And Richard Gordon has advised we look at the increasing influence of book culture to make sense of the standardization of gem iconographies. 3

Mastrocinque is, however, much more attentive than prior scholars to the workshop itself as agent behind the gems. Given the considerable freedom that temple workshops had in designing moulds for terracotta figurines,4 it is entirely possible that the most unusual gem iconographies likewise came from such milieux. But evidence for instruction manuals (and occasional correspondences with images described in the magical papyri) allow for much more diversified craftsmanship. One complication to the independent agency of workshops is the remarkable dearth of gems with Mithraic scenes, only three of which appear in this collection on three entirely different stones (##413-15). Mithraism, of course, was a cult largely disseminated and maintained through its iconographic tradition and the workshops that sustained it. Is their relative rarity among the corpus of gems due to the gems' function (healing or protection) or to Mithraists' strict control over craftsmen's promulgation of the iconography? One might ask the same from the paucity of clearly Jewish gems. Jewish culture can be presumed in a few gems with legible Hebrew (##515, 519, 539, 649-51) and another that seems to depict Moses and the Israelites at Sinai (#516). A number of gems depicting dekans as anthropomorphic figures inscribed with letters on all their limbs and torso (##474-76) suggest some relationship to the macranthropos, the "body of God," imagined in some late antique Jewish esoteric literature.5 And certainly themes that originated in Jewish texts, like Solomon, had great popularity. But for whatever reason—and a putative orthodox aversion to gems is unlikely — there is little indication either that Jews sought in their gems specific symbols of religious identity (like the menorah) or that Jews themselves manufactured gems with symbols closely associated with their texts or temple-based traditions. The paucity of clearly Jewish gems in this collection matches the skeptical assessment of Gideon Bohak, that most "Jewish" elements or influences are in fact the appropriations or exotic inventions of Christian or other local craftsmen.6

For the student of late antiquity and of the Empire's turn to a Christianizing culture — one often assumed to have eschewed these older "heathen" ritual media — the amount of gems included in this volume that draw on or promote Christian traditions is remarkable. Examples with Jesus as good shepherd or as healer (##535-40; cf. 689-90) or invocations to Saints Procopius (#541) or Sissinios (##691-94) certainly pale in number compared to the apotropaic Solomon rampant (##520-31), which seems to have functioned well beyond Christian and Jewish circles, but the Christian themes do show the relative vitality of the gem tradition as workshops integrated the new iconography.

Mastrocinque has masterfully transcribed all texts and voces magicae and provided rich bibliographies at numerous points. Overall the book is an essential component for a university library and, for scholars interested in the ritual crafts of the Roman empire, an extraordinarily useful book to have and to study.


1.   Chris Faraone, "Text, Image and Medium: The Evolution of Graeco-Roman Magical Gemstones," 'Gems of Heaven': Recent Research on Engraved Gemstones in Late Antiquity, c. AD 200-600, ed. Chris Entwistle and Noël Adams (London: British Museum, 2011), 50-61.
2.   Simone Michel notes the therapeutic function of the gems in her recent "(Re)Interpreting Magical Gems, Ancient and Modern," Officina Magica: Proceedings of a Conference June 1999 at the Warburg Institute, London, ed. Shaul Shaked (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 141-45, while Richard Gordon stresses their complex destinies once in circulation: "Archaeologies of Magical Gems," 'Gems of Heaven', 39-49, at p. 44.
3.   Gordon, "Archaeologies of Magical Gems."
4.   See, e.g., Pascale Ballet, "Potiers et fabricants de figurines dans l'Égypte ancienne," Cahiers de la céramique égyptienne 4 (1996): 113-22.
5.  See Gedaliahu G. Stroumsa, "Form(s) of God: Some Notes on Metatron and Christ," Harvard Theological Review 76 (1983): 269-288.
6.  Gideon Bohak, Ancient Jewish Magic: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 158-65, 212-14, 279.

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