The Morgan Cup [^^52.1.93^^] is a Roman cameo glass of the first century A.D. It may have been found in the ancient city of Heraclea Pontica, modern Eregli, Turkey. The cup was once in the collection of J. Pierpont Morgan (hence its name). It came to the Museum in 1952 as the gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr.
One of the fascinations of an object like this is that it sheds light on the beliefs and concerns of the people who used it. I am going to describe the cup, tell you a little about its history, then return to the decoration and try to work out what it means.
The Morgan Cup is 6.2 cm (2 1/2 in) high and 7.6 cm (3 in) wide at the rim. It is a cameo with two layers: opaque white over translucent deep blue. The cup was blown and cased, then ground, carved, and polished.
The side of the cup is decorated with a continuous frieze of figures and objects in a landscape. Setting the scene, we have a pine tree and a canopy suspended between the tree and a column. Next comes a young female wearing a short tunic and an ankle-length dress. She kneels and lifts a cloth from a cylindrical box. The next figure is a young male. He is wearing a loincloth tied at the waist, and he fastens one end of the canopy to the column. To his right is a large mixing bowl. Next to him is another female carrying a pitcher and a basketwork tray with pinecones, apples, and cakes. She is dressed like the first female, with part of her dress extending to the left in a train. Next is a woman with her head covered. Her right arm is raised and in her left hand she carries a lighted torch. Beside her is a table with an incense burner containing a smoldering pinecone and three fruits. Near the table is a pedestal supporting a statue adorned with a garland. Finally, we have a donkey tethered to a branch. The donkey has a bridle, a bell around its neck, and a saddle with a square pommel on the top. Clearly, there is a lot going on, and in a moment I will try to explain what the scene is about.
But first, some history. The earliest recorded owner of the cup was Joseph Durighello, who acquired it about 1903. The cup seems to have had at least one other owner before Morgan, a M. Branteghem. In a letter to Morgan, the Paris dealer Arthur Sambon reported that "the owner [Branteghem] asked 12,000 £ (British pounds) for it before he was obliged to a judicial sale and it was deposited for some time (about a year) at the British Museum, where the trustees tried to raise a sum for the acquisition."
After the British Museum failed to raise the funds, the cup was sent for auction in Paris, on May 24, 1912. The sale was preceded by the publication of a pamphlet written by a former director of the Louvre, Wilhelm Froehner, who described the object, noted its rarity, and suggested that it was made in the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14).
Despite Froehner's opinion, some scholars doubted the authenticity of the cup and Morgan acquired it against the advice of curators at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The director of the museum, Edward Robinson, wrote to Morgan's librarian: "Probably Mr. Morgan forgot all this in the glamour which attended the sale ... the sale being a special one at which I believe only this cup was put up, and which, curiously enough, coincided with the time of Mr. Morgan's visit to Paris."
A glimpse of the "glamour" surrounding the sale is provided by this eye-witness account: "At the Hotel Drouet, M. Henri Baudoin, assisted by Mme Feuardent, sold a very precious antique glass cup, decorated with figures in white on a blue ground and found at Heraclea Pontica, having been in the possession of the late Branteghem. The experts asked 50,000 francs. M. Lapauze, the distinguished conservateur of the Petit Palais [a museum in Paris], bid up to 48,000 francs; the bid was actively taken up by M. Danlos on behalf of Baron Edmond de Rothschild; but also against the baron was M. Sambon; the latter, incidentally, was bidding for J. Pierpont Morgan with an unlimited commission."
Thus, before the cup was snapped up by Morgan, it slipped through the fingers of curators at the British Museum and the Petit Palais, and of collector Edmond de Rothschild. Such is the benefit of bidding with "unlimited commission"!
Morgan had acquired a great rarity. He had also acquired an extraordinarily interesting object, and I will now explain what the figures are doing. The tree and the statue tell us that the setting is an outdoor shrine. The bald head and pointed ears of the statue indicate that he is Silenus, who in Greek and Roman mythology was the tutor of Dionysus (also known as Bacchus), the god of wine. In fact, the whole scene must be connected with Dionysus because the young man in a loincloth has a tail, and this identifies him as a satyr, one of Dionysus's male attendants. The satyr, helped by a female attendant, is securing a canopy to provide shade or protection from the elements. Evidently, they are preparing the shrine for an event.
In order to identify this event, we need to know that in classical Greece, women who wanted to become pregnant visited temples dedicated to Asklepios, the god of healing. The women would purify themselves, pray, then fall into a deep sleep, during which, they believed, they would be impregnated by snakes. In Hellenistic and Roman times, the same prayers were offered at shrines of Dionysus.
This is precisely what we see on the Morgan Cup. The veiled woman has ridden to the shrine on a donkey, which will remain tethered until the ritual is over and she is ready to go home. At the shrine, she has purified herself and is now making offerings in front of the statue of Silenus. The elements necessary for purity are fire, wind, and water. Fire is indicated by the burning pine-cone on the incense-burner, wind by the ribbons fluttering from the garland around the statue, and water by the mixing bowl and the attendant carrying a ewer. The woman, her head covered out of respect for the solemn ritual, prays in front of her offerings. Soon, she will lie down beneath the canopy and fall into a sleep. While she is sleeping, the woman will be joined by the snake, which will emerge from the box. If all goes well, she will become pregnant.
It is interesting to note that the person who carved the Morgan Cup made mistakes. He botched both the anatomy and the drapery of the attendants. The veil of the praying woman does not work, and the body of the satyr is too long in proportion to his legs and overall height. Such "mistakes" are fairly common in carvings of semiprecious stones because craftsmen were dealing with irregular bands of color and this sometimes forced them to distort the ornament. This, of course, is not the case with glass, where the only unpredictable elements are bubbles hidden below the surface. It is just possible, therefore, that the carver of the Morgan Cup was faithfully copying a lost original made of semiprecious stone.
Be that as it may, what interests us today is not so much the skill of the carver as the scene he depicted – a scene which affords a glimpse of the beliefs of the Romans nearly two thousand years ago.
Published on October 3, 2011