Sasanian cameos are extremely rare, with only about 50 examples known, a great contrast to the other glyptic arts of the time (stamp seals, ring stones and clay bullae) which survive in large numbers (see p. 310 in M. Henig and H. Molesworth, The full content cameos). The rarity of the material makes this recently rediscovered royal cameo all the more significant.
The cameo presented here is exceptional, not only for the quality of the carving and the rarity of the subject, but also for its rectangular shape, which is unique. It is the only known Sasanian example of this form to have survived from antiquity. In fact, even in the much larger Greek and Roman repertoire, square or rectangular gems are unusual (there are Greco-Persian tabloids, such as No. 304 in J. Boardman, Greek gems and rings; two Hellenistic examples, nos. 18 and 105 in D. Plantzos, Hellenistic engraved gems; and a Roman gem, pl. II, 34 in M.-P. Levesque de Gravelle, Collection of ancient grave stones).
The bust is encased in an unusual beveled frame, which, like the portrait itself, exploits the natural layers of stone, caramel brown and bluish white against a black background. Narseh is shown in profile to the right, her wavy hair tied back in a tiara, with a row of scrolling curls below the plain band. The tiara is tied at the back of the head, with two long puffy streamers below. The narrow groove of the tiara has scratches along its length that suggest it was once inlaid with gold, now lost. His relatively short beard is made up of similar scrolling curls, covered by his long, serpentine mustache. He has an arched forehead and a large, almond-shaped eye with the pupil and iris set high and forward in the sclera. Her long straight nose is rounded at the tip and her lips are slightly parted. A drop-shaped pendant hangs from his ear. Narseh dons a tunic with a six-petalled rosette at the shoulder and a smooth collar, with a decorative band worn diagonally across the shoulder punctuated with dotted circles along its length. The shape of this garment, the hairstyle and the diadem are archaic, reminiscent of the images of the Parthian kings, in particular of Mithridates II (121-91 BC), as seen on his coinage (see pl. 141B in AU Pope, A survey of Persian art).
While depictions of King Narseh are extremely rare, the attribution of this cameo to the king is confirmed by comparison with a portrait in garnet intaglio from the National Library of Paris (see fig. 1). The jewel of Paris and the cameo shown here share a number of stylistic traits, including the hairstyle and treatment of the eyes, nose, mustache and earring. Although the Paris Jewel has an inscription around its edges for Shapur (“the Mazdean lord Shapur, king of kings of Iran”), it is thought to have been added later, possibly during Shapur’s reign II or III. The Jewel of Paris is identified as representing Narseh due to the shape of his crown, in this case a fluted diadem, since each successive Sasanian king wore a unique crown. The same fluted diadem is seen on a rock-cut relief at Naqsh-i-Rustam depicting the investiture of Narseh and on his coins (see pl. 157B and 251K in Pope, op. cit.).
Narseh was the seventh king of the Sasanian Empire, reigning from 293 to 303 AD, the youngest son of Shapur I. During Shapur’s reign, he served as governor of the important eastern provinces of Hind, Sakastan and Turan. After his father’s death in 270, the crown passed to an eldest son, Hormizd I, and after a brief reign of a year he was succeeded by another of Shapur’s sons, Bahram I, who gave Narseh the post Governor of the Western Province of Armenia. . Bahram I’s reign was also short (271-274), and he was succeeded by his son Bahram II and soon after by his grandson Bahram III. His rule was opposed by the aristocracy, who favored Narseh, and when Bahram III’s army defected, Narseh ascended the throne. During his reign, the Sassanids and Romans clashed, with Narseh eventually forcing the retreat of Galerius (serving as Caesar under Emperor Diocletian) from Mesopotamia. Vowing revenge, Galerius later invaded Sasanian Armenia and won a decisive battle there (commemorated on his bow at Thessalonica) in which Narseh’s harem and many nobles were taken captive. He was forced to sign a humiliating treaty and died a few years later.
The practice of cameo cutting, invented in Hellenistic times, was adopted by the Sassanids from the Romans. It is well known that following the sack of Antioch by Shapur I in 253 AD, many Roman craftsmen were brought to the Sasanian homeland (see for example the Roman-style mosaics in the Royal Palace of Bishapur, Iran, #87 in P.O. Harper, The royal hunter, art of the Sassanid Empire). One of the most remarkable Sasanian cameos in existence is a large oval layered sardonyx depicting Shapur I and the Roman emperor Valerian (pl. 183 in B. Fowlkes-Childs and M. Seymour, The world between empires, art and identity in the ancient Middle East). Both are on horseback, with Shapur grasping valerian by the wrist, a symbol of the Roman emperor’s capture at the Battle of Edessa in 260. As with the Bishapur mosaics, this is thought to be the work of a Roman craftsman.
The modern history of the cameo of Narseh is just as rich as the ancient one. It was collected by Jean-Pierre Collot (1774-1852), the French banker and close friend of Napoleon Bonaparte. After having financed the coup d’etat of 18 Brumaire which brought Bonaparte to power in 1797 with five hundred thousand francs in gold, Collot was appointed commissioner of the French army in Italy (see p. 355ff, LAF de Bourrienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, flight. 1). This highly lucrative role allowed Collot to participate in the art buying frenzy that followed the French invasions of Venice and the Papal States. His collection included Old Master paintings as well as engraved gems, including a magnificent cameo acquired from the Vatican’s Museum Christianum depicting the head of Saint John the Baptist on a platter. This cameo has been attributed to the engraver Matteo del Nassaro (circa 1490-1547), and was seen in 1806 by the antiquarian Aubin-Louis Millin de Grandmaison at Collot’s. pretty dachyliothequeor cabinet of precious stones, in Paris (see p.717 in ALMillin, Fine Arts Dictionary, flight. 1). While much of his collection was sold at auction after his death, the Sasanian cameo was given by Collot to his daughter Victoire Pauline Antoinette Collot (1814-1895), La Marquise de Lillers. It will remain in the family until its auction in Paris in 2018.
The cameo was originally mounted in a decorative gold frame engraved around 1810, presumably commissioned by Jean-Pierre Collot. This was then embellished with a more elaborate silver-covered gold mount circa 1850, probably commissioned by La Marquise following her inheritance. The mid-19th century rectangular setting features two rows of small antique mine-cut diamonds surrounding a central row of larger mine-cut diamonds. The top and bottom rows are centered by a large old-cut diamond, and the setting is topped with a central ring and symmetrical undulating ribbon, also set with old-cut diamonds. The velvet-lined box bears the French heraldic crown for a Marquis Collot on the outside of the lid.