Cameos: miniature masterpieces

14 January 2023

Unmistakably one of the most interesting jewellery related exhibitions in the Netherlands. ‘Cameos. Masterpieces in stone’ at the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden. It boasts over 100 hand-carved cameos from the Classical World and medieval times up to the seventeenth century. As you walk through the exhibition, you’ll feel like a kid in a sweet shop. Gemstone galore!

What are cameos?

Cameos were highly popular in jewellery in ancient times. And to me, they still are. Seeing is believing: the ornaments show incredible detailed scenes in relief. Using a loupe can be essential as cameos are often as small as your fingertip. Expect three-dimensional art depicting – for example – animals, figures from Roman and Greek mythology and small texts. Anything you like really. All carved by hand in material such as shells and gemstones like sardonyx and carnelian. As you can probably imagine, it took a lot of expertise to create these pieces.

Gemma Constantiniana

Some examples are slightly bigger. Emphasis on slightly. 😉 At the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden the so-called Gemma Constantiniana is on show at the Cameos exhibition. The size? It’s about 30 (w) x 22 (l) cm big and made around 312-315 AD. Apparently one of the three largest cameos from the ancient world, or so I am told. What a sensational experience it is to get this close to such an extraordinary work of art. The relief in white and blue sardonyx scene depicts Emperor Constantine’s victory in 312 AD. An excellent example of colour zoning and I love the ‘wobbliness’ of the cameo as well. A gilded and stone-encrusted frame from the 17th century surrounds it. A painting from 1765 in the museum’s collection shows the original frame which is even bigger.

Permanent exhibition in Leiden

Since November 2022, the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities houses a permanent cameo exhibition. They acquired the world-renowned ‘Content Family Collection’, assembled by collector and expert Derek Content. According to the museum, Content purchased his first carved stone at the age of seven. Fast forward to seven decades later: with 444 pieces, the collection is the biggest known private collection worldwide. Now belonging to the museum. About 93 of them are cameos with texts. Truly exceptional pieces that shine a light on the daily life in Roman and Byzantine times. I highly recommend a visit to the exhibition in Leiden. Over 100 pieces are put together, categorized in themes. Every piece is individually illuminated and therefor clearly visible. Close-up photos in slideshows and a moveable loupe next to the cameos make it even more easy to enjoy every tiny detail. The exhibition design is the biggest compliment the collection!

Personal favourites

My favourites? Where to begin? I tend to look at the ones from around 200 – 300 AD first. I was immediately attracted to a carnelian cameo with a snail and the text ‘MOKUKPUNKEPEK’ which means ‘remember me’. So sentimental and sweet. In a modern gold setting, I noticed a sardonyx cameo depicting a hand holding an ear with the text ‘MNHMONEYE MOY’ which means ‘think of me’. I would absolutely wear this. Another wearable and gorgeous piece is a gold ring with a sardonyx handshake cameo and the text ‘OMONOIA’ which means ‘unity’. Another favourite – and a special touch to the exhibition – is the short film by artists Scheltens & Abbenes. It shows marble statues from the museum wearing the cameos like jewellery. Sexy! Yes, the exhibition is definitely a must-visit.

Photo credits: Dutch National Museum of Antiquities
The photo of me in the exhibition was made by Sigrid van Roode