EGYPT. Uncertain, circa 3rd-4th centuries. Gnostic Amulet (Silver, 51x41 mm, 21.48 g, 12 h). IAⲰ CABAⲰΘ AΔNAI ABPACAΞ MIXAHΛ OYPIHΛ COYPIHΛ ΓABPIHΛ in outer frame; within, various symbols: in the upper half, male god, draped to the waist and with his torso bare, seated left, holding scepter in his left hand and pointing with his right toward scorpion before him; above, winged scarab seen from above and capricorn swimming right; behind, bow in bowcase; in lower section, mummy of Osiris wearing atef-crown and lying left between crocodile standing left above and lion standing left below. Rev. XNOY/BIC Chnoubis, in the form of a lion-headed serpent, coiled to left, head encircled with seven-rayed nimbus containing the letters A-Є-HI-O-Y-W; to lower right, three-bar symbol of Chnoubis. Unpublished and unique, a magnificent large Gnostic amulet and a treasure trove of Gnostic symbolism. Very sharply engraved and exceptionally well preserved, with some deliberately uncleaned toning overlaying the silver luster. Good extremely fine.
From the collection of a British Antiques dealer, privately purchased in the 1970s.
Gnosticism, like any ancient mystery cult, was a secret religion with symbols only revealing themselves to the initiates. Thus, the iconography of a Gnostic amulet such as this exceptionally large and impressive example is often very complex and difficult to decipher. The legends in the outer frame of the obverse are perhaps the most straightforward: they name the biblical god Jahwe with his epithets Sabaoth (Zebaot) and Adonai, followed by the names of the daimon Abrasax and the Jewish archangels Michael, Uriel, Suriel and Gabriel. The inner field, on the other hand, is filled with a plethora of Gnostic symbols. The seated god in the upper half of the amulet might be Serapis, who often appears on Gnostic gems, but the god does not wear a kalathos and is half-nude; he is thus perhaps best identified as Zeus or Kronos. The mummy, on the other hand, is certainly that of Osiris, the Egyptian god of fertility and vegetation, life and afterlife and the Nile, whose worship flourished in late antiquity together with that of sister-wife Isis. Osiris was a classic god of resurrection and is hence often associated with Abrasax as a daimon of time (see above, lot 1515); the lion below his mummy likely refers to the burial of the god, whereas the crocodile above him symbolizes the annual floods of the Nile, which were linked to Osiris' annual resurrection. Scarab ('cheperer' in ancient Egyptian), capricorn (the tenth astrological sign in the Zodiac) and scorpion, on the other hand, are all ancient symbols related, though not limited to, Egypt. This leaves the bow in bowcase as the only symbol whose meaning in this particular context remains somewhat enigmatic.
Turning to the reverse, we find an image of Chnoubis, an Egyptian Gnostic Agathodaimon, who is often portrayed on medical amulets as he was worshipped as an expeller of bad demons. Hence, magical gems and amulets showing Chnoubis enjoyed great popularity as talismans against illnesses, in particular against gastric distress. Chnoubis is shown with a radiate lion head, marking him as a solar deity associated with enlightenment, with the legend A-Є-HI-O-Y-W between seven rays representing the seven Greek vowels, the seven planets and the seven heavens.
Gnosticism and the worship of Abrasax was prevalent in the eastern half of the Roman empire, but particularly in Egypt, where this magnificent amulet may have been produced. Its decidedly Egyptian iconography is typical for such talismans, which were often worn in the form of gemstones (see BM G 568, EA 56526, for a gem with similar obverse iconography, but Horus instead of Chnoubis on the reverse). Silver amulets, on the other hand, particularly of this size and with such beautiful iconography, are very rare indeed. That is not to say that they did not exist, but as with all large jewelry made from precious metal, they would hardly ever be lost and eventually be melted down, if not for the metal, then through the persecution of pagan folk religion by monotheism in late antiquity and early medieval times. We are thus very fortunate that this magnificent example has withstood the perils of time and survived to this day, allowing us to study the mystery religion of Gnosticism and to enjoy the beauty of its engravings.