The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, , at sacred-texts.com
Following the axiom, "that the body is more than the raiment," the foregoing chapters have been devoted to the consideration of the notions which our talismans have invested with visible form. These visible forms, therefore, their materials, and manufacture, now come before us for explanation--a wide field for curious research, and extending into many diverse regions of Archæology.
The genuine Abraxas-gems, that yet fill our cabinets, came originally for the most part out of Egypt; others, as their differing style shows, from Asia; others again from Syria, where many Basilidans had established themselves at an early period. Amongst these philosophising semi-Christian sects the figure of Abraxas was held in high esteem. "They used it (says Bellermann) as a Teacher in doctrine, in obedience to whom they directed their transcendental researches and mystic instruction; as a Token and a Password amongst the initiated, to show that they belonged to the same fraternity; as an Amulet and a Talisman, and lastly as a Seal to their documents."
Gnostic intagli are almost the sole productions of the Glyptic Art, during the time it was dying out, all through the last two centuries of the Western Empire, if we except a few rude figures of the goddess Roma, Victories, and Eagles made for legionary rings. As may easily be supposed the art displayed in these designs is at its lowest ebb, being itself a degenerate successor to the debased Egyptian school of Alexandria. * The
engraving seems to have been entirely executed by means of a coarse wheel, like that characterising the Sassanian stamp, then commonly used in Persia, a country which, by the bye, was the source of many of the ideas expressed in these figures and inscriptions. The choice Indian Sards, Nicoli, and Amethysts which embellished earlier periods, are replaced by coarser materials, the native productions of the countries which had engendered the new creed, the Jasper of Egypt dark green, or sometimes mottled with yellow and red, the Plasma, usually of bad quality, passing from a dirty olive-green into common Calcedony, and quite as abundantly the fibrous Hæmatite more or less magnetic. Indeed the opaque Jasper and the Loadstone, those special materials for signets at the fountains of the Magic Art, Egypt and Assyria, had, from time immemorial, engrossed the reputation of the most fitting vehicles for talismanic figures. The former was Pliny's Molochites, "opaque, and of the colour of a mallow leaf, of innate power as an amulet to protect children;" its black variety was his Antipathes, "recommended by the Magi as a sure defence against witchcraft of every kind;" whilst the Hæmatite is the Persian Kamhahen, perhaps the true etymology of cameo, a word that came into Europe in the ages when every engraved stone passed for a talisman.
So constant is this rule of unmitigated barbarism that Gnostic types when found well executed and in fine stones, as sometimes is the case, will on examination always prove to emanate from the Cinquecento school, a period when anything pertaining to Astrology or the Kabala was reproduced in vast abundance under the impulse of the revived spirit of mystic speculation. To this and the following century, must be referred the authorship of those large jaspers, not unfrequent in Collections, presenting the terminal figure of Osiris, the field occupied with astrological cyphers and modern Hebrew letters. Of these imitations, betraying themselves by their own excellence, the most conspicuous was a large Amethyst, obtained by me at Florence, engraved with an erect figure of the hawk-headed Phre, Priapean, holding the Cynophalus upon his hand, and standing on the coiled serpent, an intaglio in the
best Roman manner, that no era of Gnosticism had been capable of producing. *
Antique pastes with subjects do not exist, and for a very sufficient reason. The material of a talisman being quite as essential to its virtue as the sigil engraved upon it; the mystery whereof the profound Camillo di Leonardo shall hereafter declare in his own words. Again, the genuine stones were in themselves so cheap, and the work upon them produced so expeditiously and with so little care, as to leave small temptation for counterfeiting them in a baser substance. The only exception that has come under my notice to the inferior quality of the stones employed by the Gnostic engravers is the singular Garnet tablet of the Hertz Cabinet, of which a description will be given in its proper place, when we come to treat of inscriptions.
The Lettering of the legends † upon these talismans has a peculiarity of execution that of itself serves to identify almost every stone belonging to the Gnostic series. The letters are all formed by straight lines, the Θ, Ο, and Σ, being quite square, either from the rudeness of the instrument employed to cut them, or because want of skill prevented the engraver from attempting curvilinear characters, to do which neatly requires the utmost dexterity and long practice, being in fact the most difficult task that can be demanded from the wheel. For it was with this newly-invented instrument, as the equality of their lines demonstrates, that these ill-shaped characters were faintly
traced upon the stone. In all likelihood the same artists were the Alexandrian glass-workers, famed long before for their engraved vases, Martial's "tepide toreumata Nili," for Pliny uses the significant expression, "vitrum, aliud torno teritur, aliud argenti more caelatur," "some glass vessels are cut out by means of the drill, others carved in relief in the same manner as silver plate." The Ξ in these inscriptions is invariably formed by drawing a short line across the diagonal of a Ζ, so that in rude work, it cannot be distinguished from the latter character.
These inscriptions are often found superadded upon the backs of gems of much earlier date, evidently for the purpose of converting them into talismans. Of such conversions the most remarkable known to me are, a fine cameo (Marlborough Cabinet) a bust of Commodus; on the reverse of which has been rudely cut the Abraxas-god surrounded by a legend, unintelligible though sounding like Greek words.
[paragraph continues] Another cameo (Royal Cabinet) with the helmeted heads regardant of Constantine's two elder sons, has received the very unorthodox addition of Anubis, also surrounded by a long legend in huge characters, so barbarous as to defy transcription. A third (Devonshire Parure, No. 79), a fine head of Hercules, lapis lazuli, has received the Gnostic baptism by the addition on the back of a scarabeus with expanded wings (recognised emblem of the Creator), and the word of power ΑΒΡΑΣΑΞ. The extremely debased style of all such additions plainly indicates a period long posterior to that of the originals; whilst the position they occupy, necessarily concealed when in use, proves that the whole object of such improvements was the supernatural protection of the wearer.
The finest example of Gnostic conversion is an onyx cameo (Vienna Cabinet), representing some young Cæsar under the form of Jupiter Axur, standing in front face with the thunderbolt in his left hand, his right resting on the sceptre, the ægis hangs down his back for paludamentum, at his feet the eagle on one side a trophy with seated captive, hands tied behind; all in a good style in low relief. The talisman-maker has cut a
line of square characters, resembling Palmyrene, down each leg from hip to foot, a nimbus of the same round his head, others on the field: and, to make all sure, has covered the back of the gem with 16 lines in the same abstruse lettering. It is carefully figured in Arneth's 'Cameen des K. K. Cabinettes,' (Pl. xviii. 2), who suggests Julian for its subject, without considering that the "Philosopher" wore a long beard during the period when such a representation of him as this was permissible. Besides, for the two centuries before Julian's times, Serapis was the only type under which the reigning emperor was allowed to be complimented, the old Latin 'Jovis Axur' having grown obsolete. The hero of this apotheosis is much more probably Titus, or even his brother. The cameo is of respectable dimensions, being 2¾ inches high by 2½ wide.
As regards the history of Glyptics these inscribed gems have a value of their own, as fixing the date when the wheel came generally into use in the engraver's atelier; for the minute and elegant lettering of earlier times will be found, when examined with the microscope, to have been incised in the gem with the diamond point, whence its perfect regularity and freedom.
Of these Gnostic inscriptions in general, Raspe (Catalogue of Tassie's Pastes, p. 38) has given accurate transcripts, from an immense collection belonging to every shape and period of Gnosticism. Chabouillet has more recently done the same for the very large series in the French Cabinet, in his valuable 'Catalogue des Camées de la Bib. Imp.' p. 282. In the 'Gorlæ Dactyliotheca,' (3rd ed. 1695), Nos. 326-486 are entirely Gnostic and astrological designs, and include the greater part of those first published by Chiflet in his 'Macarii Abraxas-Proteus,' ed. 1610, whose plates were re-engraved for the purpose on a reduced scale, but with large additions, apparently made by the learned editor of the work, Gronovius. But the most extensive series of actual representations of the whole class are the plates to the Section 'Les Abraxas' of Montfaucon's grand work 'L’Antiquité expliquée.' Many of his examples were drawn from the fine Cabinet of gems belonging to the Library of St. Geneviève, besides others, and very
interesting specimens, from a previous work by Capello. * Though roughly engraved, they seem to have been copied with laudable attention to accuracy.
274:* Their barbarism, however, is often in advance of that of their real period. A convincing example is the one found in the great treasure-trove of Tarsus, where the latest coins went no later than Gordian III. It was a black hematite, with a four-winged, sceptre-holding Æon, reverse Venus Anadyomene, with her usual title ΑΡΩΡΙΦΡΑCΙC, scratched in so rude a style that one would have placed its execution three centuries later, but for the company in which it was found. Another point of interest was its retaining the original setting--a cable-mounted frame, with loop, of massy gold--proof of the value placed upon its potency. (Franks Collection.)
276:* I had long suspected that the Cinquecento period produced much Gnostic work in the ruder style, and at length have obtained proof demonstrative of the truth of this suspicion. Amongst a large lot of coarsely-cut Gnostic jaspers of very recent work, my attention was caught by one (an inscription of several lines) cut upon a tablet of that streaky agate paste so popular at that period, but quite unknown to the ancients. The piece had been highly polished and then engraved with the wheel; the design probably copied from a genuine stone.
276:† Stiechel explains the inscription upon the shield borne by an Abraxas figure, written thus, as no more than the customary form in that position, the Name Iao with the Sign of the Cross thrice repeated (to make up the mystic number, Seven), He quotes in support of this acute explanation a gem published by Matter, bearing ΧΦΕΝΕCΧΗΡΦΙΧ, expressing the sound of the Hebrew Peni zets ripia = "His face--this--healed."
279:* Who professes to copy originals in the ancient Cassel Cabinet; although many of his types are so unparalleled in modern collections that Matter suspects them mere creations of his own fancy. But examples of some of the strangest amongst them have lately come under my own notice, apparently mediæval Arabic talismans, which Capello, very pardonably, mistook for remains of the ancient Gnostics.