Late Antique, Early Christian and Jewish gems: magic amulets

Magic amulets with Christian imagery were produced by an unusual workshop operating in 5th-century Palestine. Most of the amulets were crudely cut from very soft stones that could be easily carved with a sharp tool rather than with the drills used by experienced gem cutters. All were pierced to be worn suspended. The amulets generally draw on popular Christian imagery, including the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Raising of Lazarus, and Jesus with the apostles. A more unusual scene shows Daniel slaying the Dragon of Babylon, from the Apocryphal Book of Daniel. Other devices include the cock-headed, snake-legged figure found on the earlier, pagan magic gems. Although some of the inscriptions on the amulets are in Greek, other inscriptions are badly blundered or in a pseudo-script, sometimes imitating Hebrew. The amulet makers appear to have had a superficial knowledge of both pagan and Jewish magic but were evidently serving Christian clients.

2 Gem images

Two-sided amulet. On the front, the Raising of Lazarus. On the reverse are three lines of Greek magic words.

Jerusalem, Bible Lands Museum. Soft gray stone, 33 mm.

2 Gem images

Two sided amulet. On the front, the Sacrifice of Isaac: Isaac is bound before an altar. Abraham raises a knife but turns his head to see the hand of God. A ram is tied to a tree. On the reverse side are four lines of pseudo-Hebrew script.

Private collection. Soft, black stone, 22 x 19 mm.