Art - Taking a Look at The Royal Gold Cup at the British Museum
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
The Saint Agnes Cup as it’s also known is a finely crafted, incredibly detailed solid gold cup in the British Museum. It’s normally one of the last objects I come to as I make my way to the exit - after a good look at the Sutton Hoo artefacts, and a brief pause at the wonderfully animated Lewis Chessmen.
You can’t really miss it as you wind around the exhibition cases in Room 40, placed in a little island of its own.
I love seeing how many people lean in for a closer look, often not knowing what they are looking at - but yet so totally captivated by its quality. Despite being from the end of the 14th century, it is in perfect condition.
It was made for the French royal family, then owned by several English monarchs, then spent nearly 300 years in Spain, and has been in the British Museum since 1892.
Decorated with chapters from the life of Saint Agnes of Rome towards the top, the symbols of the Four Evangelists around the bottom (the lion above symbolises Mark) with enamel red and white Tudor roses in the centre added later, apparently under Henry VIII.
But it's the scenes of Saint Agnes, as well as her half sister Saint Emerentiana which are of most interest. The vivid and highly animated cycle follows the story of the martyrdom of the ill-fated saint - and it's worth remembering that this was made in the 14th century! Before looking into her life, take a moment to appreciate the fine delicate patterns, the vibrant colours and the minute details on the surfaces.
The story begins with a scene showing Agnes and her sister, who both peer into a box held out by a young man. Agnes is the women in vivid red and has her attribute the lamb by her side, as well as a halo and carries a martyrs palm. The young gentleman is showing them a collection of luxurious and expensive gifts, hoping to tempt Agnes into marriage. This is Procopius, the young son of the Prefect of Rome (who stands right behind him, not looking too supportive of his sons efforts). But Agnes wasn't interested and rejects him the words “I am betrothed to him who the angels serve”.
According to tradition, he wasn't the only man she rejected, and many were getting frustrated with her resolute devotion to religious purity. Wanting revenge, they notified the authorities as her being a follower of Christianity.
The father of Procopius took his son's reject particularly personally, and condemned poor Agnes to be dragged naked through the streets and locked up in a brothel. Accounts say she was raped by men, who were immediately struck blind, with the Procopius killed in an instant when he tried to do the same.
Here we see Agnes standing outside the brothel looking down at the Prefect’s son with the devil crouching over over him. His father looks on sadly. Agnes, feeling a bit sorry for the pain the father is going through and brings him back to life through her prayers. Over on the right you can see the young man kneeling in front of Agnes in gratitude.
But Agnes has just brought someone back to life, and is showing hints of magic and witchcraft. The father, despite being ever grateful for his son being brought back to life, is a bit uneasy...It seems off he scarpers, and left poor Agnes to answer to the authorities alone.
Despite only trying to help, Agnes is condemned to death. All the young woman did was reject a man, who wanted revenge, a devil intervened, and she was the one who brought him back to life. On top of that, it's believed she suffered martyrdom at the incredibly young age of 12 or 13. It's hard not to feel for the young women being burnt alive in this scene, but at first the wood wouldn't burn, and once it did the flames parted way. In the end the officer in charge drew a spear through her throat (other resources say she was beheaded).
The scenes continue on the underside of the bowl, starting with the burial of Agnes. But things don’t go so smoothly, the following scene shows pagans arriving to disrupt the burial. Her sister Emerentiana stays and carries on praying but she is pelted to death by rocks.
The followince shows a woman lying on the sarcophagus of Saint Agnes. This is Constantia, the daughter of the Emperor Constaine (notice her crown). She is suffering from leprosy and has come to the tomb of the martyr in hope of being cured. I assume the man on the left with crutches, as well as the figure crouching down by his side are doing the same, and have also heard of the healing powers associated with the sarcophagus.
As Constantia sleeps, Agnes appears to her and tells her she will be healed. You can see her pointing towards the princess, with her attribute the lamb in her arms.
But it's not just the Gold Cup and the Lewis Chessmen in Room 40 which deserve a closer look. A few more of my favourite pieces in the collection are also here - from the frankly bizarre Tring Tiles which show the naughty goings on by a young Jesus, to the stunning Thomas Beckett Reliquary dating back to the 13th century.
What are some of your favourite objects in the British Museum?
If you enjoy reading my blog posts why not subscribe! You'll find the form to enter your email address on the home page here.
Heard in London