Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
Cameo portrait of the Emperor Claudius (10 BC-54 AD) with head in profile to the left wearing a laurel wreath tied at the back in a bow with the ribbon ends cascading down the nape of his neck. His corselet has shoulder lappets, each of which is decorated with a scroll and ends in a tassel. Along the neckline appears the crinkly edge of an undershirt and a fold of material from a cloak hanging forward over his left shoulder. The upper part of the corselet, above the underarm, is tied with a central knot and overlaid by a scaly feathered aegis with a rolled lower edge, zigzags at the sides and the upper border patterned with a spiral and two knotted snakes below. At the centre of the aegis is a gorgoneion with snakes knotted beneath her chin. The shoulder pieces, which lie over the aegis, are decorated with laurel leaves and a central disc. The fulmina beside them seem attached to the aegis. Claudius shoulders a spear and has a sword at his left side of which the eagle-head pommel (brown) is visible overlying the corner of the aegis and the upper part of the scabbard blade patterned with lines and zigzags. The cameo with raised border and flat top is surrounded by a carved egg-and-dart edge. The stone has been mended from many fragments but no substantial part is missing except at the back of the neck and in the adjacent ribbons, restored in plaster.
The image of Claudius is the largest of the surviving imperial single-portrait cameos. The raised border, cut with a flat top showing the darker layer of the stone, is not uncommon but the carefully cut egg and dart on its outer edge is very rare.
The Emperor Claudius, who reigned from AD 41 to 54 and died aged 63, is shown wearing the aegis over his corselet as a Zeus/Jupiter. It is only with Claudius that the aegis begins to appear commonly as part of imperial portrait dress. Another novelty is the presence of the sword with its eagle-head pommel as a strong reminder of the Zeus-eagle motif often occurring in imperial glyptic. The laurel wreath is often found on coins of Claudius and on several cameos; however, in major statuary he is usually given an oak wreath. The fold of a cloak over the left shoulder is a regular feature of cuirassed statues of the early empire and in many respects the cameo seems to reflect a monumental portrait rather than following closely the conventions of imperial portraiture for mass consumption.
The cutting is crisp and highly polished but this is not a realistic portrait and the gross neck and weak chin have been minimised. Suetonius (Claudius 30) describes Claudius as ‘not lacking in authority and dignity in appearance but only when he was standing or sitting, or especially when he was at rest, since he was tall, not slim, handsome in his features and with his white hair, plump in the neck’.
Most of Claudius’ portraits belong to the earlier years of his reign and here he does not look to be near the end of his life. Comparison with coin portraits suggests the years AD 43-5; this portrait, which demonstrates his merit as a soldier no less emphatically than his claim for divinity, may have been cut after his triumph in Britain in AD 44.
Unfortunately the source of this, the finest and largest of the ancient cameos in the Royal Collection, is uncertain. It has been suggested that Charles I may have acquired the piece from his elder brother, Prince Henry, in which case it could have come from the famous cabinet of the collector Abraham Gorlaeus of Delft, though it is not recorded in his collection. The cameo was in the possession of Charles I before he came to the throne; an entry in Van der Doort’s catalogue of the Royal Collection (completed in 1639) ‘A larg Ovall Crackt and mended Agatt stoane of . 4 Cullors one on the Topp of an other first browne and then white, and browne againe and then white wherein is Cutt an [...] Emperors head in a lawrell side faced kept in a leathorne Case wch Aggatts yor Maty had when you were Prince’. A marginal note explains its condition: ‘This was Crackt and broken [into eleven pieces] in former tyme by the Lady Som’sett when her husband was Lo: Chamb[er]lain’; with the addition in one text: ‘before it came to the kings hands. delivered by the kinge himselfe’. The period of the Earl of Somerset’s office was 1613-15.
Along with the majority of Charles I’s gems and coins, the cameo appears to have remained at St James’s Palace throughout the Interregnum. Perhaps the sad and broken condition of the cameo led to its exclusion from the sales of Charles I’s collection in 1649 and 1651.
The next certain reference to it is in an 1830 inventory of jewels at Windsor Castle: ‘a large oval Sardonyx Cameo - broken, one of the Caesars’. Garrard repaired the piece in 1876: ‘Furnishing glass back, gilt Frame & thoroughly repairing the large Sardonyx Cameo of the Emperor Claudius’. The cameo was taken apart and reset under the direction of the Royal Librarian, Sir John Fortescue, early in the reign of King Edward VII
Text adapted from Ancient and Modern Gems and Jewels in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen, London, 2008