Late Antique, Early Christian and Jewish gems: Sasanian gems - Christian and Jewish

Although gem usage in the Roman Empire had declined precipitously by the 4th century, in the East the Sasanian Persians embraced the fashion for engraved gems with great enthusiasm. Innumerable Sasanian gems (3rd to 7th centuries AD) survive, most cut in the materials used traditionally by the Romans (primarily cornelian and agate, but also more exotic materials such as rock crystal, garnet, haematite, and lapis lazuli), but in shapes and styles distinctive to the region. A wide range of devices was employed, including portraits, but animals were especially popular. Inscriptions, usually in Pahlavi (Middle Persian), either naming the owner or expressing popular phrases ("good fortune", "trust in the gods", and so on), were commonly added. Although the vast majority of Sasanian gems were used by the Pahlavi-speaking Persian population, who practiced the Mazdean (Zoroastrian) religion, some gems can be attributed to the small Christian and Jewish minorities living within the empire, mostly in eastern Syria and Mesopotamia.

Jewish and Christian Sasanian gems are stylistically identical to Mazdean examples, but are distinguishable either by their devices or inscriptions, which may be in Pahlavi Syriac, or Hebrew. The two most common Christian images used on Sasanian seals are the Sacrifice of Isaac and Daniel in the Lion's Den. Some gems of entirely conventional Persian type are recognizable as Christian only by the personal name, such as Abraham, Jacob, Yohannan, and Daniel, or by a phrase suggesting a Christian owner, most commonly "Trust in God" (in the singular) or, very rarely, allusions to biblical verses. A small number of gems in Sasanian style are engraved with inscriptions in Syriac, sometimes preceded by a small cross, all of which are Christian, sometimes explicit by the use of the term "servant of Jesus".

Similarly, the small surviving group of Jewish Sasanian seals are in local style but are identifiable by their device, the Jewish symbols of lulav and etrog, or by the inscription in Hebrew, typically a personal name and patronymic. Jewish gems produced within the Roman Empire are very rare. Of the few examples which survive, most are engraved with the seven-branched candlestick (menorah) and uninscribed, while a few others bear magic inscriptions in Hebrew.

Gem image

The Sacrifice of Isaac: Isaac lies on an altar, while Abraham raises a knife but turns his head to see the hand of God, above. A ram is tied to a tree.

Paris, Cabinet des Médailles, inv. D3729. Banded agate ring stone, 20 x 20 mm.

Gem image

Aedicula, within which is a Syriac inscription, preceded by small cross, reading "Ada, the servant of Jesus".

Private collection. Nicolo, 13.5 x 12 mm.

Gem image

Lulav and etrog, with the Hebrew inscription, "Isaac, son of Papa".

Copenhagen, National Museum, inv. 9470. Cornelian, 13 mm.