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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In 1966 the Beatles were number one with Paperback Writer, Lyndon Johnson was asked to ‘get out’ of Vietnam, and a gallon of gas cost $0.32. American artist Ed Ruscha travelled 1,400 miles on Route 66 from LA to his hometown of Oklahoma, recording the gas stations dotted along the road. Influenced by graphic design and advertising, he transformed everyday images like this into dramatic works of art.

See this work on loan from @themuseumofmodernart in our #AmericanDream exhibition – follow the link in our bio to book tickets.

Edward Ruscha (b. 1937), Standard Station. Screenprint, 1966. @themuseumofmodernart New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

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See some of Warhol’s most iconic works in our major exhibition. Follow the link in our bio to find out more.

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You can see some of his prints in our upcoming #AmericanDream exhibition – book your tickets by following the link in our bio.

Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920), Gumball Machine. Colour linocut, 1970. © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016.
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See this beautiful beaded blanket in our special exhibition #SouthAfricanArt, which traces the history of this nation over 100,000 years. Follow the link in our bio to book your tickets before the exhibition closes on 26 Feb.
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This beautiful beaded necklace is made of brass, glass and fibre, and is known as an ingqosha, a traditional necklace worn by the Xhosa people. Young Xhosa women and men traditionally wear the ingqosha at weddings and ceremonial dances.

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Learn more about the fascinating history of this nation in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, closing 26 Feb 2017. Follow the link in our bio to find out more.
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Mahlangu’s Art Car combines tradition and history with contemporary art and politics; themes  that are explored in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition. Catch it before it ends on 26 February 2017 – you can book tickets by following the link in our bio.
#SouthAfrica #mybritishmuseum #britishmuseum #regram #repost
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