Saturday, April 17, 2021

Centaur battling a Giant?

Centaurs are popular on Archaic and Classical Greek gems and are often shown fighting, armed with branches or stones as signs of their wild nature. Battles with Herakles or the Lapiths (a people of Thessaly, famous in Greek mythology for their defeat of the centaurs) appear often, but the exact scene on this gem is unclear. The two snakes seen below the centaur’s forelegs recall the standard depiction of giants in Greek art, which are typically shown with human bodies and snake-legs: although a battle between a centaur and giant would be extremely unusual and is not a specific feature of Greek myth, the subject is attested on a Roman glass paste intaglio, suggesting it might also be depicted here. Such motifs probably reflect the Late Classical and Hellenistic interest in fanciful scenes involving mythical creatures popular in painting and sculpture.

A scaraboid is a simplified scarab, with a plain curved back and an intaglio design decorating the flat underside. The form gradually replaced the scarab in Greece in the 400s B.C.E. Like scarabs, they were typically pierced and worn either as a ring or pendant. When attached to a metal hoop and worn as a ring, the curved side faced out and the intaglio surface rested against the finger. When needed as a seal, the ring was removed, the gem swiveled, and the intaglio design was pressed into soft clay or wax to identify and secure property. - J. Paul Getty Museum 

Image: Engraved scaraboid with a bearded centaur wearing an animal skin cloak battling a snake-legged Giant, brown chalcedony, 1st quarter of the 4th century BCE, Greek in the J. Paul Getty collection of engraved gems. The centaur is shown advancing to the left to battle an unknown adversary – suggested only by the presence of two coiled snakes below the centaur’s legs. 

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