Cathrine Brown Tkacz

title.none: Kornbluth, Engraved Gems of the Carolingian Empire (Tkacz review)

identifier.other: baj9928.9610.001 96.10.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Cathrine Brown Tkacz, 1503 East Courtland Avenue Spokane, WA 99207-4614,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Kornbluth, Genevra. Engraved Gems of the Carolingian Empire. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Pp. xxv, 139, 223 figs.. $45.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-271-01426-1..

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.10.01

Kornbluth, Genevra. Engraved Gems of the Carolingian Empire. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Pp. xxv, 139, 223 figs.. $45.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-271-01426-1..

Reviewed by:

Cathrine Brown Tkacz
1503 East Courtland Avenue Spokane, WA 99207-4614

Impressive in its comprehensive use of evidence (including the gems themselves, comparanda, archival documents, exegesis, legal treatises, and scholarship on each person, image, technology involved), this book remains accessible and full of intriguing findings. It is both a catalogue of all extant (20) and attested (6) Carolingian intaglios, a corpus not treated exhaustively before, as well as a study of them individually and collectively. The implications of the medium's sophistication and varied patronage are intelligently explored. Contrary to long-held view, the medium was not dependent on Carolingian royal patronage, for its patrons, though generally elite, were not all royal (one was a merchant or landowner), and the gems continued to be carved into the tenth century. Each gem is the product of unique circumstances so that as a group they demonstrate the "splendid diversity of Carolingian art" (116). In addition to the famous Susanna Crystal, these gems include the only known seal of a contemporary female ruler (Richildis, no. 25) and the only known seal used as a hand-carried token to identify the messenger of an important person (Reginboldus intaglio, no. 13, p. 83).

In a brilliant, humanistic use of technology, Kornbluth tests hypotheses regarding the genesis of Carolingian gem carving. Through microscopic examination of the stones she ascertains that the tools used in Byzantium had a different drill tip from those used on the Carolingian stones, thus proving that the western artisans had not learned their craft from itinerant Byzantine carvers. Specifically, a flat drill, its tip resembling "a small knife-grinder's wheel," was used on Roman, Byzantine, Sassanian and Islamic gems (e.g. Fig. 30) while Carolingian craftsmen used a round drill with either a rotating ball or a wheel with curved sides. (Having established this fact, Kornbluth uses it to rule out of the corpus a gem sometimes thought to be Carolingian [130].) The practice of the artist was to sketch with a gem-tipped scriber, drill with a rotating instrument for the engraving proper, and perhaps finish with a smaller-tipped drill. Some two hundred plates in the book are Kornbluth's own photographs of the gems under high magnification, allowing the reader to see the evidence and to verify the author's assertions about the tools, the engraving, the state of the gems: for instance, Figs. 1-13, 7-11, and 17-6 show preliminary sketching; Fig. 1-27 shows sketch marks made by a chipped scribing tool; Fig. 10-3 shows the depth of cut; and Fig. 8-10 shows manual polishing marks.

And a careful consideration of comparanda led to Kornbluth's formulating a new, persuasive hypothesis: the Carolingian gem carvers probably based their techniques and tools on those of Carolingian mints. Here she draws on Philip Grierson's work on Carolingian mint technology and her own comparisons of portrait numismatics to contemporary glyptic (12-15). Elsewhere comparanda are illuminating: from a cross in a boat on a Byzantine seal stone (Fig. 45) she gained a model for explaining a horizontal segment engraved on the damaged Reginboldus agate as a similar cross in that gem's boat (79-80). She also innovatively links the British Museum Crucifixion with the crucifixion miniature in the Drogo Sacramentary, adducing evidence which suggests "that the intaglio was produced in Metz, perhaps under the patonage of Drogo himself" (87).

Painstaking scholarly sleuthing characterizes this book. Her thorough bibliographic work led to her recovery of both Dom Guillaume Marlot's description of the altar decorated with a now-lost intaglio commissioned by Hincmar of Reims and also a Renaissance drawing of the altar (122-23), and a dozen such instances could be cited. Methodical observation of epigraphy on the stones, for instance, allows her to determine that "The Radpod group abbreviates by contraction, rather than the suspensions of the Susanna group" (65). The analysis of the engraving of the Susanna Crystal itself is a fine example of her full contextualization of the work (e.g., demonstrating that the summoning of Susanna is rarely depicted), and her close observation, as in treating the royal canopy surmounting the focal final scene; regardless of whether one accepts her interpretation of the stone as propaganda for Lothar, she has proven that the visual narrative stresses the role of justice and judicial proceedings.

The medium itself was meaningful, and Kornbluth shows that frequently the symbolism of the particular stone (rock crystal, opaque agate, jet) accords with the subject engraved on it. Rock crystal's transparency and the idea that it resulted from the intense freezing of snow associated it with purity and innocence, fitting for the history of the chaste Susanna (Dan. 13), the Baptism of Christ, the Crucifixion. Gregory the Great, for instance, explains that cystal signifies the Incarnation, and Augustine's comments on Revelation link it with Baptism (53). Regarding the St. Paul crystal, Kornbluth calls attention to exegesis of the crystal of Ps. 147:17-18 as specifically symbolic of that apostle.

An intriguing finding is that the Rouen and Freiburg Baptism crystals portray the baptism of Christ typologically, that is, they present Christ as a type for the Christian to imitate. This is done ingeniously, by portraying Jesus clad, which is most unusual for this scene, and by presenting John as a bishop with a staff. Kornbluth shows that the Carolingial baptism ritual called for the newly baptised to be clad in a white robe and then to be confirmed by the bishop (50-52). Jesus, who was already sinless when he underwent baptism, is already in the symbolic robe while in the water. Moreover, the stones depicting the Baptism of Christ and the Crucifixion have strong liturgical overtones, as in the modeling of the cross after "metal processional crosses, which normally end in tongues shaped to fit the groove in a stand or staff" (55).

The discussion of the individual gems always includes origin, ownership and present location, physical characteristics (material and dimensions), inscriptions (with textual source, if appropriate), setting, history, condition of the gem, alterations of the gem, identification of problematic representations, patron/date, iconography, and literature.

The book was intelligently planned, so that it is readable as a monograph and convenient as a reference work. For instance, each catalogue entry is complete in itself: footnotes direct the reader to any relevent discussion (e.g. on the functions of seals, on technology of engraving) elsewhere in the book. The figures are numbered so that the initial number corresponds to the catalogue entry number of the gem, while the second number (e.g., Fig. 1-8) distinguishes individual detail shots from each other. This makes it easy to correlate the visual evidence with the discussion. The lost works (nos. 21, 23, 24) have no plates and consequently there are no figures with those numbers. Captions are usefully specific; the list of sources of photographs is complete. The layout of the book is attractive.

The index is wide-ranging and useful. All scriptural references appear alphabetically under "Bible citations." For "Crucifixion crystals" and "Cabuchon group" the reader is referred to the specific gems. No such entry exists for "Baptism crystals," however; "baptism" is a subheading under "liturgy," which fits the book's argument that the gems depicting the baptism of Christ do so with iconography linked with the liturgy, but ideally an index should aid a reader not already familiar with the author's thesis. Readers wanting to see if a given biblical personnage or iconographic element is depicted on a Carolingian gems, and if so, which one or ones, will regret that they are not in the index: Jesus, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Longinus, Mary the mother of God, Stephathon; personification, Luna, Sol. On the other hand historical figures, exegetes, scholars are all included.

With this volume Kornbluth has clearly defined and analyzed the corpus of Carolingian engraved gems. The book will be of use to scholars in areas including art history, medieval history, liturgy.