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 14,261 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Beatrix Potter was born #onthisday in 1866. Here are some of her flopsy bunnies! 🐰
#BeatrixPotter Made in AD 700, the exquisite Hunterston brooch was found at Hunterston, Ayrshire during the 1830s. It is a highly accomplished casting of silver, richly mounted with gold, silver and amber decoration. It is sumptuously decorated with animals executed in gold wire and granules, called filigree. In the centre of the brooch is a cross flanking a golden ‘Glory’ representing the risen Christ #MedievalMonday
The Hunterston brooch will feature in our forthcoming #Celts exhibition, on loan from @nationalmuseumsscotland. Encounter an African contribution to the global carnival tradition through contemporary artist @zakove’s Moko Jumbie sculptures in the Great Court. These spectacular 7-metre-high male and female figures in striking black and gold costumes are inspired by aspects of African masquerade. #ZakOve
Find out more about our #Africa season this summer with events and displays at www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/celebrating_africa.aspx The spectacular Sutton Hoo treasure was discovered #onthisday‬ in 1939!
This is a purse lid from the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Wealth, and its public display, was probably used to establish status in early Anglo-Saxon society much as it is today. This purse lid from Sutton Hoo is the richest of its kind yet found.
The lid was made to cover a leather pouch containing gold coins. It hung by three hinged straps from the waist belt, and was fastened by a gold buckle. The lid had totally decayed but was probably made of whalebone – a precious material in early Anglo-Saxon England. Seven gold, garnet cloisonné and millefiori glass plaques were set into it. These are made with a combination of very large garnets and small ones, deliberately used to pick out details of the imagery.
Purse lid. Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century AD. From Mound 1, Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, England.
#SuttonHoo #AngloSaxon The spectacular Sutton Hoo treasure was discovered #onthisday‬ in 1939!
Mrs Edith Pretty, a landowner at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, asked archaeologist Basil Brown to investigate the largest of many Anglo-Saxon burial mounds on her property. Inside, he made one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries of all time. Beneath the mound was the imprint of a 27-metre-long ship. At its centre was a ruined burial chamber packed with treasures: Byzantine silverware, sumptuous gold jewellery, a lavish feasting set, and most famously, an ornate iron helmet. The ship buried at Sutton Hoo is the largest Anglo-Saxon ship yet unearthed.
You can see the treasure from Sutton Hoo on display in Room 41.
#SuttonHoo #AngloSaxon The Arch of Constantine in #Rome was completed #onthisday in 315, drawn here by Canaletto.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,261 other followers

%d bloggers like this: