Images of wild animals were often used on jewelry and regalia in the ancient world. They could symbolize the wearer’s strength or character or connote status within a group, whether within a ruling elite, a religious cult, or a social status. This elaborate bracelet with elegant leopards may have signaled one of the latter categories.
Pairs of standing or leaping leopards are a widespread motif in Roman art. The leopards were frequently placed symmetrically to either side of a krater, a bowl for mixing wine with water. In this context they connected Dionysos, the god of wine, to the triumphant hero Dionysos, who conquered India, symbolized by the leopards. Alternately, the dazzling bracelet may have evoked Dionysos for his connections to marriage, religious rites, or eternal life, in that he was considered to be a god of salvation.
The bracelet may be connected to similarly-designed jewelry. An outstanding example is a fourth-century gold ring with leopards supporting a gemstone carved with a personification of Victory, now in the Walters Art Museum (accession no. 57-1114). The ring probably served as an insignium of office, which suggests a possible function for this unique bracelet. As for its date, the motif of confronted leopards was found on works of art from the first century onwards, while pairs of other confronted animals appear on jewelry mainly in the fourth and fifth century, supporting a late Roman date for the bracelet.
The natural movement of the leopards is incorporated into the design. The leopards support an openwork platform with a high bezel, which perhaps originally held a large cabochon gemstone. The forepaws of the leopards are attached to the platform by hinges which can pivot open when the pin at the base of the leopards’ feet was removed. The sophisticated construction of this unparalleled bracelet is as ingenious as it is elegant.
- S. Zwirn
M. C. Ross, Bulletin of the Fogg Art Museum 9.4 Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (1941): 69-81, esp. 71, fig. 3.
H. Swarzenski, "The Dumbarton Oaks Collection," The Art Bulletin
23 (1941): 77-79, esp. 79.
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A. Badawy, Coptic Art and Archaeology: the Art of the Christian Egyptians from the Late Antique to the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 332.
A. Yeroulanou, Diatrita: Gold Pierced-work Jewellery from the 3rd to the 7th Century (Athens, 1999), 65, no. 234, fig. 93.
S. R. Zwirn, "Two Leopards flanking a Krater," in La Mosaïque Gréco-Romaine VIII: Actes du VIIIème Colloque International pour l'Étude de la Mosaïque Antique et Médiévale, Lausanne (Suisse), 6-11 Octobre 1997 2, Cahiers d'Archéologie Romande 85-86, ed. D. Paunier and C. Schmidt (Lausanne, 2001), 96-100.
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Cambridge, Fogg Museum, "A Selection of Ivories, Bronzes, Metalwork and Other Objects from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection," Nov. 15 - Dec. 31, 1945.
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Washington, DC, Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, “Ancient and Medieval Metalwork from Dumbarton Oaks,” Dec. 16, 2005 – Apr. 1, 2007.
Found in Hadra near Alexandria (Egypt).
Purchased from Kalebdjian Frères (dealer), Paris by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, September 1938.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., until November 29, 1940.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.