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, , , , , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 13,604 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Discover the naked truth behind Greek art in our #Periscope tour of #DefiningBeauty tomorrow at 18.30! @thehistoryguy The Torres Strait Islands lie north of mainland Australia and south of Papua New Guinea. Torres Strait Islanders have distinctive beliefs and practices, but share cultural connections with their neighbours in Papua New Guinea and northern mainland Australia. Each island has its own environment and history, yet Islanders are united by their relationship to the sea and their cultivation of gardens. Dance and performance permeate all aspects of life, often telling stories about sea animals such as turtles, dugongs and crocodiles. 
Torres Strait Islanders wore turtleshell masks in initiation, funerary, fertility and other rituals embodying stories about the ancestors.
The artist of this mask has created a tin face on the front, attached a bonito fish made of turtleshell on top, and incorporated cassowary feathers and shells.
You can see this amazing mask in our exhibition #IndigenousAustralia, until 2 August 2015.
Mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish. Attributed to Kuduma, Muralug. Moa, Torres Strait Islands, before 1888.
#history #art #mask #Australia #TorresStrait #exhibition This Thursday join us for our first ever #Periscope: a live tour of our #DefiningBeauty exhibition with Dan Snow @thehistoryguy! Find out more at britishmuseum.org While researching Dracula, published #onthisday in 1897, Bram Stoker studied at the Museum's Reading Room.
Having lost his reader's ticket, this letter from the Principal Librarian of the Museum states that a new ticket would be issued to him.
#author #library #Museum #history #Dracula Take the free interactive #8mummies exhibition family trail this half-term!
#museum #exhibition #halfterm Happy birthday to Bob Dylan! Here’s a portrait of the legendary musician by David Oxtoby.
#music #portrait #art
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 13,604 other followers

%d bloggers like this: