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The Brescia Medallion - Who, When, and Where?
By Jasper Burns
(Adapted from "The Brescia Medallion and the Pleasures of Uncertainty," published
in THE CELATOR: Journal of Ancient and Medieval Art and Artifacts, Vol. 10,
No. 9, September 1996, copyright by Jasper Burns)
In the introduction to this collection of articles, the comment was made that nearly every ancient Greek or
Roman artifact seems to have features that are enigmatic or mysterious. A case in point is the Brescia Medallion (Figure 1),
a magnificent painted, gold-plated glass medallion that is mounted onto the 7th Century "Cross of Desiderius" (Figure 2)
in the Musei Civici Brescia in Italy. The medallion itself, which is 2 3/8 inches (6 cm) in diameter, depicts three
persons and is marked with two widely spaced words in Greek: BOUNNEPI KEPAMI, or
"Bounneri" and "Kerami". It is an exquisite work of art and is agreed by all of the experts to be
centuries older than the cross on which it was placed. However, the experts agree on little else concerning
this remarkable piece. Representative guesses about when and where the Brescia Medallion was made, and
who the people might be, are listed below:
The Brescia Medallion, probably 3rd Century C.E.
The Cross of Desiderius, 7th Century
Brescia Medallion mounted at bottom.Drawing by Jasper Burns
What the experts (and others) say:
||Charles Freeman, World of the Romans, Oxford Univ. Press, 1993
|Christian woman and her sons
||Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, Princeton Univ. Press
|Imperial family: Galla Placidia, Valentinian, Honorius
||Late 4th Century to early 5th
||Jack Holland, The Order of Rome, HBJ Press, 1980
|Imperial family: Galla Placidia, Valentinian III, Justa Grata Honoria
||Late 4th Century
||Traditional identification, quoted by George M. A. Hanfmann Roman Art, W. W. Norton
||H. W. Janson History of Art
|Imperial family: Julia Mamaea or Maesa, Elagabalus or Severus Alexander, Orbiana or one of Elagabalus's wives
||Paul Chapa in a letter to The Celator, February 1997
||Late 3rd Century
||John Boardman Oxford History of Classical Art, 1993
Clearly, there is much to choose from! Suggested dates in the literature concerning this medallion range from the early 3rd Century to
the middle of the 5th. The frequent description of the medallion as representing a group of early
Christians is without basis. There is nothing in the composition to identify the people as belonging to that faith and the medallion
was affixed to a Christian reliquary cross some 300 years after its manufacture.
It is interesting that different experts have seen a mother behind with her son and daughter, a mother
to the right with her son and daughter, a mother to the right with her two sons, and a brother to the left
with his two sisters! (The gender of the two figures in the foreground is not in question, but there are varying
opinions about the figure behind.)
The meaning of the inscription is also uncertain. George M. A. Hanfmann (who presents a sampling of expert opinions
about the piece) suggests that they tell us we are looking at "(the family) of Vounnerius Ceramus." But M. H.
Trowbridge translates it as "Bounnereus, the potter," meaning "Bounnereus, the maker of the medallion." ("Kerami"
is presumably related to the word ceramics, but could also be a family name.) It
would be unusual, though not unprecedented, for a piece of Roman art to have been signed so prominently by the
artist, especially if imperial personages are portrayed.
In my opinion, the medallion was made in the early to mid 3rd Century. The hairstyles, clothing, high artistic
and the style of lettering (according to H. C. Youtie, quoted by George M. A. Hanfmann in Roman Art)
best suit the 3rd Century. Also, the jewelry worn by the woman on the right (necklace of large pearls,
earrings of three large pearls each) is very similar to that worn by the Roman
empress Julia Domna on a painting (the Berlin Tondo) of about 200 C.E. that was found in Egypt.
I have no idea where the medallion was made. Italy seems an unlikely source as the inscription is in Greek rather than in Latin.
(A very similar glass medallion
(Figure 3) comes from Arezzo, Italy, but I am not certain that it was made there.) I do not believe an imperial
family is represented by the Brescia Medallion. There are passing resemblances to the Severans, as well as to
Gordian III in the case of the boy,
but we have numerous precise portraits (especially on coins) of the major imperial personalities of the time and
none of them look
enough like these people for positive identification. Also, the complete lack of the insignias of office (e.g.
laurel wreaths, diadems, scepters, even bordered toga) argues against imperial portraiture.
More interesting to me than the dating and identification of the figures on the medallion are some features that
come under the heading "enigmatic and mysterious." For example, the uncertainty over the genders of the people
shown: Is it a male and two females, or a female and two males?
The androgynous person in the background (I will call this person "she" for convenience) has several
characteristics that are unusual. Notice that she has medium length hair and that, in contrast to
the female in front of her, she wears no jewelry other than a simple, half-hidden necklace (necklaces were
worn by boys as well as girls in the ancient world). Also, the female in front is wearing richly decorated
clothing, possibly of silk. Hanfmann comments that her apparel "may indicate that she had achieved a high
rank or that she had just taken part in some special ceremony." But the person behind her wears a somewhat
rumpled and coarse cloth with a very pronounced knot in front.
Hanfmann suggests that this knot may refer to Isis worship. Isis worshippers sometimes did affect a knot in
their clothing as a symbol of their devotion to this goddess. However, a special knot was also associated with a Roman
woman on her wedding day, when a bride's tunic "was fastened about her waist by a woollen girdle knotted with
what was called 'the knot of Hercules', a kind of talisman to avert ill-fortune." (Roman Women: Their
History and Habits,
by J. P. V. D. Balsdon) This refers to the knot
formed when Hercules tied together the front feet of his lion skin. As represented in sculpture, it is of the
same general form and position as the knot on the medallion.
To me, the young couple in the front do look very much like newlyweds, or perhaps newly betrothed. The two words
above their heads could be family names, or even individual names, and the medallion may have been
commissioned to celebrate their union.
But what about our "third party?" Who is she? We've mentioned the strange clothes, the knot, the near lack of
jewelry, the medium length hair. There are a couple of other things about her. Notice that her eyes are
heavily outlined, even though the young woman in front, dressed to the hilt, has no obvious eyeliner. Her
eyes especially give her a wise, "otherworldly" look, in sharp contrast to the somewhat naive expressions
on the other two. And notice that her features seem to be intermediate between those of the couple, especially
her nose and eyebrows.
The Romans believed that every person had a guardian spirit, a "genius" in the case of a man, a "juno" in the
case of a woman. The "genius" of the head of a family was worshipped in conjunction with the "lares" or spirits
of the household. The "genius" of the Emperor was worshipped and sacrificed to throughout the Empire. The
Senate of Rome had its "genius," the "Genio Senatus," sometimes represented on coins (e.g. RIC 605, Antoninus
Pius) as did the Roman Army, the "Genius Exercitus" (e.g. RIC 117, Trajan Decius). Another Roman Imperial coin,
the so-called "Interregnum" issue (Cohen 333, Gallienus) of the mid 3rd Century, depicts the "genius" of the
Roman people, "Genius P. R."
Was there a genius - or "juno" - of a Roman marriage? One that could be represented as an androgynous,
otherworldly blend of the husband and wife? Could that be the third person in our portrait?
I have an old
45 rpm single released by John Lennon and Yoko Ono ("Happy Christmas/War is Over"). On the label are several
portraits, the one on the left of John, the one on the right of Yoko, with another at the top a perfect blend
of the two, with intermediate steps on either side. Could that blended portrait represent a similar idea to the
one on the medallion from the "Cross of Desiderius?"
Maybe not. The oddly-dressed third person could as easily represent a deceased member of the family, or a
priest or priestess of Isis, or a widowed (and therefore unadorned) mother, or Isis or some other deity,
or just a child
in children's clothing. One of the joys of studying the evidence of ancient cultures is that we are all free
to ponder and speculate, and be wrong or maybe even right. But no matter how clever or knowledgeable we become,
there is always an element of mystery and uncertainty that is a large part of the fascination.
Glass Medallion from Arezzo, Italy
Notice the resemblance (nose, ears) to the people in the Brescia MedallionDrawing by
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