What’s between the Gonzagas and the Wise Men?
Once in the collection of the Gonzagas, Lords of Mantua, the “Ptolemaic Cameo”, is today to be found at the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Wien. This stunning carved stone, dating back to 270 BC, shows the portraits of the Greek rulers of Egypt Ptolemy Philadelphus and his sister and wife, Arsinoe.
The cameo became part of the collection of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, in 1587, but its previous story is even more interesting,
During the Middle Ages, around the middle of the 13th century, the cameo is known to have been mounted on the opening of the Reliquary of the Three Kings in Cologne.
This was because the carved stone shows not just the heads of Ptolemy and Arsione, but also the profile of the Egyptian god Ammon, carved in the darker layer of the stone, on the neck-guard of Ptolemy’s helmet.
The custodians of the Shrine in Cologne and the pilgrims who flocked to venerate the relics of the Magi interpreted the cameo as a representation of the Three Kings, taking the queen for a male and the small head of Ammon for the third Magus.
Also Albertus Magnus, a thirteen-century scholar, described this gem in his book on minerals (De Mineralibus 2.3.2):
“There is at Cologne, at the Shrine of Three Kings, an onyx of large size, having the breadth of a man’s hand of more, and on it are pictured in pure white the heads of two young men. And on the jaw of one of them, is the head of an Ethiopian, very black, with a long beard”.
So, due the the number of the heads and the colours of the layers of the stone in which the portraits where carved (two white and one black), in the Middle Ages the profiles of the ruler, his consort and Ammon were interpreted as being a portrayal of the Three Wise Men from the East.
In 1574 the precious stone was stolen from the Reliquary, and – twelve years later – it reappeared in 1586 in Rome. Here it was acquired by Vincenzo Gonzaga for his Mantua collection in 1587. At that time, the carved gem was described as showing the portraits of Alexander the Great and his mother, Olympias.
After the dispersion of the Gonzaga Collection, the “Ptolemaic Cameo” was first documented in Vienna in the years 1668/69.