British Museum blog

The Lycurgus Cup: transformation in glass

detail of Lycurgus cupBelinda Crerar, curator, British Museum

The Romans are famous for doing things ‘big’ – enormous private villas, the largest armies the world had ever seen, huge temples to house countless gods and of course, larger than life personalities. The power, wealth and splendour of Rome are clear to see when you approach the Late Roman and Byzantine displays in the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100. Facing you are cabinets full of gold and silver – hoards of tableware from Cyprus and Rome, bracelets and earrings encrusted with precious gems, gold crosses declaring a love of Christ in the most ostentatious way. It’s safe to say that the Roman aristocracy liked to show off their wealth, but, for the quantity of gold and silver used to craft the treasures in the gallery, the one that contains the least shines the most.

The Lycurgus cup being installed by project curator Rosie Weetch in Room 41

The Lycurgus cup being installed by project curator Rosie Weetch in Room 41

At the centre of the display is the Lycurgus Cup. A Late Roman diatretum, or cage cup, it was carved around the 4th century AD. Its exact provenance is unknown, but it was possibly created in Alexandria on account of the fine glasswork emerging from Egypt at this time. Decorated on all sides with figures painstakingly carved in high relief, the cup shows the myth of the Thracian king Lycurgus, who enraged the god Dionysus by expelling him from his kingdom and attacking his followers. Needless to say, things didn’t end well for Lycurgus, though precisely how depends on who told the story. The version depicted on the cup was told by Nonnus of Panopolis in his 48-book-long epic, the Dionysiaca. Nonnus recounts how Lycurgus attacked a female follower of Dionysus called Ambrosia. To save her, Mother Earth transformed her into a vine which ensnared Lycurgus as it grew. On the cup, Ambrosia lies on the ground in the moment of transformation while the hapless king fights for his life against the emerging tendrils. Dionysus watches, remorseless, while the fawn-legged god Pan and one of Dionysus’ followers taunt their victim and pummel him with rocks.

The carving is of exceptional skill and the preservation of the vessel is unparalleled, but the most impressive element of the cup’s design comes from an feature that cannot be seen with the naked eye. In reflected light the cup appears opaque olive green, but when transmitted light is shone through the glass, it changes to a rich and vibrant red. The effect is caused by nanoparticles of gold and silver within the glass, so tiny and in such small quantities that only in the last few decades has microscopic analysis with sufficiently high resolution been developed to detect them. As light passes through the glass the gold and silver particles scatter the waves, allowing those at the red end of the spectrum to pass though more easily, causing the dramatic colour change. The cup’s modern name is likely to be a misnomer: the original use for the vessel was possibly as a hanging lamp, only being transformed into a cup when the gilt-silver foot and rim band were added in the 19th century. As a lamp, flickering over the dinner table, the optical properties of the glass would be shown to their full effect for all to admire, although admittedly, no one has yet been brave enough to fill the fragile, 2000 year old vessel with wine and observe the effects of light through it when full.

The Lycurgus Cup, shown with transmitted light

The Lycurgus Cup, shown with transmitted light

AN01066991_544x725

The change of colour from green to red mimics the ripening of grapes, suitable for the Dionysian theme, but whether or not the dichroic effect was deliberate or the fortunate result of contamination in the molten glass is still unclear. Nonetheless, the optical trick of this rare form of glass delighted the Roman aristocracy so much that it attracted the attention of emperors: the author of the 4th-century Historia Augusta reports that the Emperor Hadrian sent ‘a cup that changes colour’ to his brother-in-law as a gift for his banquets. It would, after all, make a fantastic conversation piece, and if its later life is anything to go by – likely preserved above ground throughout the centuries, on account of its almost perfect state of preservation, acquired by the Rothschild family in the 1800s then bought by the British Museum in 1958 – the Lycurgus Cup has lost none of its appeal.

The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 recently opened after a major re-display in Room 41. Admission is free.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Room 41, Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100, , , , , , ,

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. As a glass engraver myself, I have always admired this treasure. I am sure you are aware that Josef Welzel in Hadamar, Germany, has researched precisely how the Lycurgus Cup was engraved and made a copy using only the tools that would have been available in the 4th Century. There was a similar cup from this period, a fragment of which survived in the Tehran Museum until the recent revolution, the “Pharos Cup”, showing the great beacon at Alexandria, also in this red/green glass, which again Josef carefully researched.

    Like

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,098 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

It's #NAIDOC2015 – a week celebrating the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We’ll be sharing objects each day this week from our #IndigenousAustralia exhibition.
This masterpiece of Indigenous art is called 'Yumari' and is on loan from the National Museum of Australia. It was created by the artist Uta Uta Tjangala in 1981 and is a highlight of the exhibition. Tjangala was one of the artists who initiated the translation of sand sculptures and body painting onto canvas at Papunya in 1971, making him a pioneer of contemporary Australian art. This iconic work now features on the Australian passport.
#NAIDOC #art #painting This wonderful photo by @cnorain captures the roof of the Great Court, which includes 3,312 glass panels. Each one is unique as the space is asymmetrical.
#regram #repost #architecture

Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum For #ThrowbackThursday this photograph from 1875 shows the Museum’s first Egyptian Room.
This is one of a collection of photographs taken by the photographer Frederick York of Notting Hill, London in 1875.
#tbt #throwback #archives #mummies We’re delighted to announce our first exhibition of the autumn ‘Drawing in silver and gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns’, which opens 10 September.
This exhibition will feature around 100 of the best examples of #metalpoint spanning six centuries. Metalpoint is a challenging drawing technique where a metal stylus is used on a roughened preparation, ensuring that a trace of the metal is left on the surface. When mastered it can produce drawings of crystalline clarity and refinement.
This exhibition was organised by the National Gallery of Art, Washington @ngadc in association with the British Museum.
Book your tickets now to see these spectacular works! #art #drawing #Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Bust of a warrior. Silverpoint, on prepared paper, c. 1475-1480. Can you guess the artist behind this work? 
All will be revealed at our special exhibition announcement tomorrow! #metalpoint Tower Bridge opened #onthisday in 1894. Here’s an early print of the iconic landmark.
#history #London #TowerBridge
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,098 other followers

%d bloggers like this: