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

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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.

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We love this brilliant sketch of the Great Court by @simoneridyard! It captures the subtle blues and greys of the inside of the space. The Museum has always played host to artists throughout its history, and we still see people sketching their favourite objects or views inside the Museum (although most people take a photo with their phones now!). Have you made drawings while visiting any museums or galleries? We’d love to see any art made in the Museum – tag your photos with the location and we’ll regram our favourites! #BritishMuseum #London #regram #repost #museum #art #sketch #sketchingfromlife The Lion of Knidos looks very regal in this super photo by @nin_uiu. The Lion is named after the place where it used to stand, an ancient Greek city in modern-day Turkey. A colossal statue weighing six tons, it was part of a funerary monument that stood on a headland above a cliff. The lion’s eyes were probably inlaid with glass, and this may have aided sailors navigating the rugged coastline – they could use the reflection of the eyes to determine where the coast was. The sculpture is made from one piece of marble, but it’s not known exactly when it was made and estimates range from 394 BC to 175 BC. #BritishMuseum #history #AncientGreece #AncientGreek #lion #sculpture #statue #London There have been some beautiful sunsets in London recently – we love the way @wiserain23 has captured the streaks in the sky over the Museum in this shot. The orange and peach colours in the sky have been spectacular during this spell of cold, crisp but sunny weather. You can see the Museum lit up like this if you visit during our Friday late opening – you can browse the galleries until 20.30. Remember to share your photos with us by using the British Museum location tag – we love seeing our visitors’ photos, so get snapping! #BritishMuseum #London #sunset #sky #lights #evening #regram #repost Don’t forget to look up! ☝🏼 The triangular feature above the columns of the Museum’s main entrance is called a pediment. Originally it had a bright blue background and the statues were all painted white. 
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The next step in the progress of civilisation is for man to expand his knowledge and understanding. The following eight figures represent the subjects he must learn to do this – architecture and sculpture, painting and science, geometry and drama, and music and poetry. The final human figure, on the right, represents ‘educated man’. Learn more about the Museum’s architecture and its fascinating history in our new blog – follow the link in our bio! We’d love to hear what you think. 258 years ago we opened our doors to the public for the first time! The British Museum is the world’s oldest national public museum, founded in 1753. It was created to be free to all ‘studious and curious persons’ and it’s still free today, but a few things have changed…

Did you know that the @natural_history_museum used to be part of the British Museum? The Museum’s founder Sir Hans Sloane had collected a vast number of natural history specimens, and these were part of the Museum’s collection for over a hundred years. In the 1880s, with space in Bloomsbury at a premium, it was agreed that these collections should move to a new site in South Kensington.

This photograph by Frederick York shows a mastodon skeleton on display here in Bloomsbury, before it moved to South Kensington in the 1880s.

Explore more of the Museum’s history on our new blog – follow the link in our bio and let us know what you think! The British Museum opened to the public #onthisday in 1759, the first national public museum in the world! 🎉

The Museum was founded on the death of Sir Hans Sloane, who bequeathed his collection of 71,000 objects to the nation. The British Museum Act gained royal assent in June 1753 (which makes us older than the USA!). The original collection featured 1,125 ‘things relating to the customs of ancient times’, 5,447 insects, a herbarium (a collection of dried plants), 23,000 coins and medals and 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts.

This photograph of the front of the Museum was taken in 1857 by Roger Fenton, the Museum’s first official photographer.

To mark this anniversary, the Museum is launching a blog where you can find all kinds of interesting articles – things you didn’t know about the Museum, curators’ insights, behind-the-scenes stories and more. Follow the link in our bio – we’d love to know what you think!
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