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Diadem depicting Scylla and Sea-Nymphs
Period: Fifth to fourth century BC
Culture: Greek
Material: Gold
Dimensions: 23.5 x 7.8 cm 
 
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This exquisite diadem is made from a thin sheet of gold, which allowed for decoration to be created using the repoussé technique. This intricate process involved impressing the sheet of gold on a matrix or die made of wood, stone or bronze, and tapping it with a soft hammer. The detailed design is enhanced by its execution in gold, exploiting a technique that takes advantage of the play of light upon the brilliant surface.


The diadem is in excellent condition, which is remarkable given the fragility of the medium in which it is wrought. These ornamental headbands connoted divinity and royalty and would have been owned by people of considerable standing. This shape of diadem is known throughout the Classical and Hellenistic periods, from the fifth to the first century BC. However, the simple overall form combined with such a sophisticated design might indicate a date around the fourth century BC.


In the centre of the diadem, the sea-monster Scylla advances fiercely, approaching the viewer head-on, wielding a sword or trident above her head. She is identified by the three dogs which protrude from her upper body, and her long sea-monster’s tail, which coils around on either side, iconographical traits which start to appear from the fifth century BC. A wave-like pattern running around the edge denotes the sea, and dolphins leap on either side. Sea-nymphs riding hippocamps (seahorses) decorate the field. According to mythology, Scylla was a fearsome sea-monster who inhabited the rocks on one side of a treacherous strait, whilst Charbydis, the perilous whirlpool, swirled on the opposite side. The strait was said to be so narrow that sailors could only avoid one threat if they fell into the clutches of the other. Scylla is referred to in Homer’s Odyssey, which follows the hero Odysseus as he tries to sail back to his home in Ithaca. Odysseus is advised to sail closer to Scylla than Charybdis - whilst Charybdis could destroy the entire boat, Scylla could eat only a few men. The image of Scylla on the present diadem, and indeed, in much of her artistic iconography from the fifth century on, is at odds with the description presented by Homer, which tells of a hideous monster with twelve feet, six necks, triples rows of teeth and a dog’s bark. In later Greek literature, she is instead presented as having been a beautiful girl who was turned into a monster by the jealous Circe, and it was out of this tradition that the present depiction was borne. Accompanied by other sea creatures, such as the hippocamps, sea-nymphs, and dolphins, she comes to signify the sea itself rather than a particular evil force; here, she still represents the impenetrable power and untold might of the sea, but imbued with a sense of charm and beauty.


Such representations of Scylla can be seen on a number of different objects from pottery to mirrors and jewellery boxes. She is particularly popular on South Italian ceramic vases, probably because she was though to inhabit what are now known as the Straits of Messina. One such example is a Paestan krater now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu (inv. no. 81.AE.78, circa 340-330 BC). A silver-gilt pxyis lid from the Morgantina Treasure from Sicily, also depicts Scylla with coiling tails on either side and her hand raised above her head (circa 300-211 BC).

 


Further Literature

 

J. Ogden, Greek Gold: Jewellery of the Classical World (London, 1995).

 

M. Aguirre Castro, ‘Scylla: Hideous Monster of Femme Fatale? A case of contradiction between literary and artistic evidence’, in Cuadernos de Filología Clásica: Estudios griegos e indoeuropeos, Vol. 12 (2002), pp. 319-328.

Provenance

South German Collection, 1980s.

Exhibited: TREASURY Moscow WFAF, September 19, 2005

Salon des Grands Antiquaries, Brussels, November 10, 2006

Published: Pierre Bergé & Associés, 17 June 17 2010, lot 275.