Getting to the Bottom of the Captivating Cup of the Ptolemies
The Cup of the Ptolemies is one of the most spectacular ancient cups to have survived the ages. This attractive artifact has also gained a fascinating story over the years of its existence.
The cup of the Ptolemies is a two-handled onyx cameo cup. It is decorated with carved emblems and Dionysiac vignettes. It is known as one of the greatest examples of late ancient period art. The cup may have been made in Alexandria, Egypt, but this is uncertain. The dating of the cup suggests that it was created by an artist who lived around 250 BC.
Another hypothesis says that the cup could have been made during the 1st century AD, but there is no concrete evidence for this belief. Tradition connects the cup with the rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt (thus the name). The research by Jean Tristand de Saint-Amant seems to confirm this idea. In 1644, he argued that the cup was made for a funeral celebration of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who ruled Egypt from 285 to 246 BC. Dating of the cup is very difficult because there are not many similar pieces, and it is made of stone - but it is very likely that it was made during the reign of the Ptolemies.
The early history of the cup remains unknown. The first reliable documents claim that the cup was owned by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who perhaps donated it to the abbey of St. Denis near Paris, France. Thus, the ancient cup became a Christian relic.
Back view of the Cup of the Ptolemies. ( Clio20/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Beauty of Metaphoric mythology
The importance of this artifact is in the symbolism carved on the cup. It was carved out of onyx and measures 8.4 cm by 12.5 cm (3.3 by 4.9 inches). The decoration on the cup is full of cult motifs. There are depictions of masks, vases, mythical animals, garlands, etc.
The cup is surely connected with the cult of Dionysus. There is also a mask of the young god Pan included on it - which can be seen on a tree. One point of interest is that there are almost no symbols directly connected with ancient Egyptian mythology. Only on the reverse side, does one find two sphinxes – however they are not carved in Egyptian style.
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An oblique view of the front of the Cup of the Ptolemies. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Researchers suggest that the statues contained on the upper side of the cup could very well symbolize Ceres or Telete, providing further links of the cup with the cult of Dionysus. Apart from this, bacchante masks were also carved on the cup. The female figure whose lit torches represent festivities and orgies is also associated with the cult.
Additionally, the raven of Apollo and a figurine of Hermes are visible on the cup. The great importance of this cup for purposes of the ancient religion is supported also by the goat seen resting on the ground and surrounded by the symbols. Other iconographic understanding of the cup remains unknown. It is hard to fully understand the meaning of all the trees, heads, masks, and animals, but it is clear that the cup was a very special artifact since its creation.
Christian Up-cycling Adds New Meaning
The cup appeared in St Denis officially around the period of Charlemagne, in the 9th century. During the Carolingian period and later, many ancient treasures were transformed into modern objects. The same thing happened with the Cup of Ptolemies, which was transformed into a traditional chalice. Carolingian artists added a base in a shape of a truncated cone and covered the cup partly with a goldsmith work.
A chalice with Saints and Scenes from the Life of Christ. ( Public Domain )
In the 12th century, the Abbot Suger of St. Denis (who served 1122-1151 AD), also altered the image of the chalice, making it even more similar to the chalices of his times. He ordered the addition of the metalwork at the bottom of the chalice and a two-line inscription in Latin on the mounts of the cup, which reads: hoc vas Xpe tibi [devota] mente dicavit tertius in Francos [sublimis] regmine Karlus . In English this means: "The [exalted] Charles III, on the French throne, consecrated this vessel for you, Christ, with a [faithful] mind”. The mounts were made of gold and gem-studded.
An engraving by Michel Félibien that was made in 1706, depicting the front and the back of the Cup of the Ptolemies. ( Public Domain )
The inscription is often linked to the story of Charles the Bald, ruler of Western France in the 9th century. However, some researchers believe that it could also be connected with Charlemagne or Charles the Simple who ruled at the same time.
For centuries, the cup carved in ancient times was a treasure of the French Kingdom and was a donation in the abbey of St. Denis. Thus, a cup with decoration from more ancient religions was used as a Christian chalice during ceremonies. It was used as a chalice for communion wine and also figured in the coronation of the French monarch.
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In 1634, the onyx cup was estimated to be worth around 25,000 livres, while the added mountings with gems were valued only at 1,200 livres.
In 1804, the cup was stolen from St. Denis and the medieval mounts were melted down for their precious metals. Some parts were recovered later in the 19th century, and the cup became a part of the collection in the Cabinet des Médailles at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.
Saint-Denis, France. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Over the centuries, the Cup of Ptolemies was an important artifact for various cults and religions. The idea of recycling or up-cycling ancient artifacts in medieval and later periods was very popular. Another example of this practice is seen in the columns and monuments of ancient temples and palaces, which were reused during the building of churches and other places in Europe and around the world. Many pieces of ancient buildings were removed and later became parts of the decoration of some of humanity’s greatest architectural treasures.
Featured image: Front view of the Cup of the Ptolemies. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0
B. de Montesquiou-Fezensac, D. Gaborit-Chopin, Le Trésor de Saint-Denis, 1973–77.
P. L. Gerson, Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: a symposium, 1986.
S. McKnight Crosby, The Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis from Its Beginnings to the Death of Suger, 475-1151, 1987.