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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the art of carving precious or semiprecious stones, a form of decorative applied art. From time immemorial, carved stones (gems) have been used as seals (marks of ownership), amulets, and ornaments. Gems were made of soft stones (steatite, hematite, serpentine) or hard stones (carnelian, chalcedony, crystal) manually or with the aid of uncomplicated machines equipped with a rotary cutting tool. Gems with a design below the surface are called intaglio, and those carved in relief are called cameos.

The most ancient known glyptics were made in Mesopotamia, Southwest Asia, and Egypt (4000 B.C.), and they attest to the high level of development of the art. They were mainly cylindrical seals (intaglio) whose impression produced highly developed compositions with many figures. The numerous glyptics of Mesopotamia reflect the stylistic evolution of its visual arts. The most ancient Sumerian seals (early third millennium B.C.) often represent naïvely realistic figures of animals and people and genre and mythological scenes, which are distinguished by spontaneity of composition and liveliness of movement. Later the compositions became static and conventional, often resembling geometric design. The glyptics of Akkad (2300 B.C.) again developed realistic tendencies. The representations were no longer flat and the composition became freer and more dynamic. The Akkad traditions were carried on in the Assyrian practice of using cylindrical seals (1000 B.C.) characterized by diversity of subjects (the most common being scenes of the hunt and war), a careful finish, and a decorative ornamental quality.

The traditions of Mesopotamian glyptics are close to the gems of Urartu (ninth to seventh centuries B.C.) and Achaemenid Persia (sixth and fifth centuries B.C.). The seals of Egypt as a rule had the form of the sacred beetle, the scarab; carved on the underside of the seal were hieroglyphic texts or representations of mythological characters that adhered to the flat shape of the stone. Cretan gems (third and second millennia B.C.) were distinguished by incisive, free composition, dynamic and universalized drawing, and the skill of the engraver in carving complicated storytelling compositions on the stone’s tiny oval. In addition to representations of animals, beloved by the Cretans, portraits of people appeared here for the first time. Cretan glyptics had an influence on the development of glyptics in Mycenian Greece.

The art of glyptic attained a high degree of development in ancient Greece and Rome. Greek gems often had the form of scarabs, borrowed from Egypt, which later became very widely used by the engravers of antiquity. In the gems of archaic Greece (sixth to early fifth century B.C.) careful craftsmanship and keen, realistic observation were combined with decorative elegance and precisely generalized forms. In the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., when the classic forms of ancient glyptics were being developed, the engraver’s use of the decorative qualities of the stone and of soft and attractive effects due to its translucent nature became increasingly important. The designs on the gems of this period (animals and birds, figures of gods and heroes, and scenes taken from mythology) were laconically composed, serenely pure, and harmonious. The seals of Dexamenos of Chios (second half of the fifth century B.C.), which still bear the master’s signature, exhibit a rare feeling for the beauty of the stone, impeccable proportions, the finest drawing, and barely detectable gradations of relief (gem representing a flying heron, the Hermitage, Leningrad; gem with the portrait of an unknown man, Boston Museum of Fine Arts).

During the Hellenic period, not only the range of design but also the external appearance of the gems changed. After the campaigns of Alexander the Great, multicolored minerals from the East were widely imported into Greece, including scarlet garnet, purple Syrian almandines, violet amethysts, and green Ceylon beryls. Cameos became fashionable. They were splendid gems carved in relief from multilayered and multicolored sardonyx, often of a large size. At the courts of Hellenic monarchs, portrait gems were especially popular. The famous Gonzaga Cameo, carved by an unknown Alexandrian craftsman and representing King Ptolemy II Philadelphus and his wife Arsinoë (third century B.C., the Hermitage), combines sculptural virtuosity with a skillful use of the stone’s finest nuances of color. During the Hellenic age, gems were valued and collected both as works of art and as luxury items.

With the fall of the Hellenic centers the craftsmen converged on Rome. The ancient glyptics experienced a new florescence at the court of the Julians and Claudians. The greatest masters of the art of ancient Roman glyptics were the Greeks Agatop, Solon, and Dioscorides. The latter, on becoming the personal engraver to Emperor Augustus, founded a dynasty of court masters. In addition to reproducing the famous models of the past, the Roman masters created portrait gems, treated in keeping with the subject’s character, and splendid cameos with compositions of many figures with a mythological and allegorical content (the gem The Crowning of Augustus, attributed to Dioscorides, late first century B.C., Vienna Museum of History and Art; and the largest antique cameo, the so-called Paris Cameo, 31 cm by 26 cm, the circle of Dioscorides, National Library, Paris). On the Danube and the Rhine, along the Northern Black Sea Shore, and in Transcaucasia, there were schools teaching the art of glyptic, which preserved and gave individual interpretation to the traditions of Hellenic and Roman art.

In the Middle Ages, glyptic developed mainly in the East. Byzantine glyptics, while preserving antique traditions to a great extent, nonetheless injected into the work an individual predilection for flatness, graphic refinement, and a growing schematization of forms. Inscribed gems became very popular in the Muslim East, and calligraphically fine engraved texts adorned the seals of medieval China.

The interest in glyptic revived in Western Europe during the Renaissance with the interest in the heritage of antiquity and in collecting ancient gems. A leading place in Renaissance glyptic was occupied by the Italian masters. They copied ancient glyptics and made profile and three-quarter portraits of contemporaries. The masters V. Belli, G. Bernardi, and Jacopo da Trezzo became widely known. In the 16th century a taste developed for decorative splendor, and the forms of gems became more complicated. The Milan masters Alessandro and Antonio Masnago introduced the new fashion of variegated polychromatic cameos with complicated dynamic narrative compositions. However, glyptics were gradually losing their independent importance and were used to decorate furniture, housewares, and clothes.

A new glyptic revival came during the age of classicism (18th and early 19th centuries) when the interest in antiques again came into its own. Master carvers (the Pichler family in Italy and L. Natter in Germany) as a rule executed the orders of distinguished European collectors. Jacques Guay worked at the French court and Karl Leberecht at the Russian court. Among the outstanding masters of this time were Russian carvers who studied medal-making at the St. Petersburg Academy of Art: A. A. Esakov, I. A. Shilov, and P. E. Do-brokhotov. In the 19th century, the art of glyptic went into a decline.


Maksimova, M. I. Antichnye reznye kamni Ermitazha. Leningrad, 1926.
Maksimova, M. I. Reznye kamni XVIII-XIX vekov. Leningrad, 1926.
Lordkipanidze, M. N. Gemmy gosudarstvennogo muzeia Gruzii, vols. 1-4. Tbilisi, 1954-67. (In Georgian and Russian.)
Borisov, A. Ia., and V. G. Lukonin. Sasanidskie gemmy. Leningrad, 1963.
Kagan, Iu. O. Vystavka zapadnoevropeiskoi gliptiki XIII-XVII vekov. Leningrad, 1969.
Furtwängler, A. Die antiken Gemmen, [vols.] 1-3. Berlin-Leipzig, 1900.
Delaporte, L. Catalogue des cylindres orientaux, vols. 1-2. Paris, 1920-23.
Vollenweider, M. L. Die Steinschneidekunst und ihre Künstler in spätrepublikanischer und augusteischer Zeit. Baden-Baden, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Pertaining to carving or engraving.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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