7th April 2017
Sculptors of the ancient world produced some of the most spectacular stone vessels ever made. As far back as Predynastic Egypt, over 5000 years ago, stone vessels of great elegance were made for luxury consumption, as well as for votive and funerary purposes. The colour, variety and beauty of the stones employed, the wondrous forms and the quality of the carving and polishing of such vessels still astound today.
The predynastic Naqada period of ancient Egypt (circa 4000-3100 BC) saw the advent of production of high quality stone vessels and from this time until the end of the Old Kingdom (circa 2100 BC) large numbers of stone vessels of an incredible range of material, colour and splendour were produced by craftsmen. The most expensive vessels would have been those made of hard stone such as basalt, diorite and porphyry as these were exceptionally hard to carve by hand and without metal tools.
The andesite porphyry jar and mottled green stone bowl pictured are two just such examples that would have been commissioned by wealthy individuals. Stone vessel production in Egypt continued until the Roman period but the used of hard stone diminished dramatically by the end of the Old Kingdom, with fine quality alabaster becoming more usual, as seen in this alabaster alabastron. For further discussion of early Egyptian stone vessels, see El-Khouli, A., Egyptian Stone Vessels: Predynastic Period to Dynasty III, typology and analysis, 1978.
Contemporaneous with Egypt’s Old and Middle Kingdoms, the Minoan culture of prehistoric Crete also produced stone vessels of great beauty. The serpentine bird’s nest bowl pictured is a distinctive shape of Minoan stone vessel and this example is ornamented with wonderful diagonal swirling grooved decoration. Many of these vessels have been discovered in tholos tombs in Mesara, which suggests a funerary or ritual context: Warren, P., Minoan Stone Vases, 1969.
The Cyclades islands of Greece are renowned for the unique white marble vessels and idols produced at a similar time in the Greek Early Bronze Age (circa 3200-2200 BC) and the Cycladic marble kandila pictured is a fine example from the Grotta-Pelos phase. Carved from glowing white marble, the effort to hollow out these stone vessels must have been considerable. Similar examples of this form of kandila have been published in: Thimme, J., Art and Culture of the Cyclades, Chicago, 1977
During the Roman period, the expansion of the empire and demand for luxury and rare goods resulted in a resurgence in the production of coloured stone vessels. Materials used included coloured marbles of a huge variety, porphyry, rock crystal, agates, obsidian. for discussion, see Lapatin, K., Luxus: The Sumptuous Arts of Greece and Rome, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.
Often extravagantly decorated with mosaics, paintings, coloured stone walls and sculpture, Roman private houses and villas were the perfect venue for a sumptuous overt display of prosperity and education. This Roman marble labrum is beautifully carved from multi-coloured Africano marble and perfectly encapsulates the exotic, rare and expensive sculpture used to decorate a villa.
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