Late Antique, Early Christian and Jewish gems: introduction

Around the middle of the 3rd century AD gems engraved with Christian inscriptions and imagery first appeared in the Christian communities of the eastern Mediterranean. Identical to pagan gems in shape, material (usually cornelian, agate, or jasper), and engraving style, and likely produced by pagan gem cutters for their Christian clients, these gems bear distinctively Christian inscriptions or symbols, most notably the fish and the Good Shepherd. Soon afterward, narrative images were introduced, usually scenes from the Old Testament, such as Jonah and Daniel, which were given Christian interpretations. By the time the first Christian seals were introduced, however, the fashion for using engraved gems was waning. Although there was a brief revival under the Constantinian emperors, only a few workshops appear to have manufactured gems after the fourth century. One workshop produced fine garnets and sapphires at the end of the 5th century, and several distinctive groups of gems with religious iconography were cut in Asia Minor and Syria in the 5th and 6th centuries. In the East, within the Sasanian Empire (3rd to 7th centuries AD), where engraved gems remained very popular, the small Christian and Jewish communities also engraved seals.


O.M. Dalton, Catalogue of Early Christian Antiquities in the British Museum (London, 1901)

Ph. Gignoux, "Sceaux chrétien d'époque sasanide", Iranica Antiqua 15 (1980), 299-314

Genevra Kornbluth, "'Early Byzantine' Crystals: An Assessment", Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 52/53 (1994/95), 23-32

H. Leclercq, "Gemmes", DACL 6, 1 (1924), 794-864

Judith A. Lerner, Christian Seals of the Sasanian Period (Istanbul, 1977)

Shaul Shaked, "Jewish Sasanian Sigillography", in Au Carrefour des religions. Mélanges offerts à Philippe Gignoux. Res Orientales 7 (Leuven, 1995), 239-55.

Jeffrey Spier, "Late Antique Cameos c.A.D. 250-600", in M. Henig and M. Vickers, eds., Cameos in Context. The Content Lectures (Oxford, 1993), 43-54

Idem, "Early Christian Gems and their Rediscovery", in C.M. Brown, ed., Engraved Gems: Survivals and Revivals. Studies in the History of Art 54 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1997), 33-43

Idem, Late Antique and Early Christian Gems (Wiesbaden, 2007)

Back to top