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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)

FIGURE 1. The Brescia Medallion, probably 3rd Century C.E.

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:

FIGURE 2. The Cross of Desiderius, 7th Century
with Brescia Medallion mounted at bottom.
Drawing by Jasper Burns

What the experts (and others) say:

Christian family 4th Century --- Charles Freeman, World of the Romans, Oxford Univ. Press, 1993
Christian woman and her sons 300 C.E. --- 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
--- 3rd Century Italy H. W. Janson History of Art
Imperial family: Julia Mamaea or Maesa, Elagabalus or Severus Alexander, Orbiana or one of Elagabalus's wives 218-235 C.E. Italy Paul Chapa in a letter to The Celator, February 1997
--- Late 3rd Century Alexandria, Egypt(?) 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 quality, 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.

FIGURE 3. Glass Medallion from Arezzo, Italy
Notice the resemblance (nose, ears) to the people in the Brescia Medallion
Drawing by Jasper Burns

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.

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