Byzantine (probably Constantinople); mounted in Paris ca. 1800 in a gold frame by Adrien Jean Maximillian Vachette (French, 1753–1839)
3 x 2 1/8 x 1/4 in. (7.7 x 5.4 x .7 cm), without frame 2 3/8 x 1 5/8 in. (6 x 4 cm)
Gift of John C. Weber, in honor of Mary and Michael Jaharis, 2007 (2007.445)
The delicately carved cameo displays a popular medieval Byzantine image of the Virgin and Child. Making subtle use of the agate's colors, the artist placed the image of the Virgin with her hands upraised in the orant, or prayer pose, on a bluish layer suggestive of the heavens. A large medallion on her breast contains a bust of the youthful Christ Emmanuel, symbolic of the preexistent word of God. Flanking the Virgin's head are abbreviations in Greek (ΜΡ/ΘΥ) identifying her as the Theotokos, Mother of God. This icon type, which became popular in the eleventh century, is often called the Virgin Blachernitissa after the Blachernai Monastery in the imperial Byzantine capital Constantinople (now Istanbul), which is thought to have housed a similar image. Byzantine hardstone carvings were a widely admired luxury good during the medieval period. Similarly exquisite carving is found on a Byzantine cameo thought to have come from the Royal Treasury of the Kings of France that is now in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The elaborate gold frame on the Metropolitan's cameo, with tiny bird-head clasps anchoring the stone, attests that in France admiration for such fine works continued into the Napoleonic era.