Kornbluth, Genevra:

An authenticating seal? On the function of the double-sided jet intaglio in Sens

A gem excavated in Sens in 1982 was correctly identified as Carolingian by its discoverer (Perrugot 1993), but has never been fully interpreted. One side is formatted like a Carolingian seal matrix, and inscribed CARVS PAXTE. Despite its odd orthography and lack of a title, the inscription probably refers to either Charlemagne or one of his numerous eponymic descendants. The jet can be dated to the ninth century. Its jeweled gold setting with a suspension loop at the top may well be contemporary (contra Perrugot).

The closest comparandum for this intaglio is the two-sided jet seal matrix of Louis II in Zurich, but the Sens gem was probably not a functional seal. Rather than another bust, its second side displays a lion (unknown in early medieval sigillography). The two sides are sufficiently similar in both design and technique to suggest that they are contemporary. Like the Codex Aureus of Saint Emmeram, which also brings together a lion and a royal figure, the jet evokes Christ as the lion of Judah. As in the Physiologus, this is the lion who sleeps with its eyes (here quite large) open, who hides its presence by sweeping the ground with its tail, and who brings its cubs to life after they are born dead. The Sens animal’s unusually prominent tongue may reflect Pliny’s lion, who (as in some later bestiaries) licks the cubs rather than breathing on them.

The Sens intaglio associates ‘Charles’ with the Christological lion, making a very positive statement about that person even if its precise meaning remains obscure. Its setting in a metalwork pendant suggests that it was carried as a jewel. Perhaps, like fourth-century Fidem Constantino rings, it was worn by a loyal adherent of the imperial house. In that sense it could have blessed either a contemporary figure or the dynasty’s most famous member.

Genevra Kornbluth is an historian of the luxury arts as well as a photographer. She holds a Ph.D. in art history from the University of North Carolina, and has served as a Director of the International Center of Medieval Art. She has published extensively on western Medieval, Byzantine, and Roman engraved gems, metalwork, coins, and seals. A hallmark of her scholarship is close attention to the minute details that reveal how objects were made and used.