Reverse after design of Étienne Delaune (French, 1518/19–1583), probably a 19th-century addition
Gold, enamel, jewels, and chalcedony
L. 3 1/2 in. (8.9 cm), W. 2 in. (5.1 cm)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.907)
The commesso was a rare form of jewelry in which carved semiprecious stones were combined to form an integral part of the design. The technique flourished only briefly in the rarefied atmosphere of the sixteenth-century French court, where Italian and French artists collaborated. One of the most important figures in the invention of the commesso was Matteo da Nassaro of Verona, who was first lured to Paris in 1515 by Francis I. Matteo installed hydraulic wheels in ships in the Seine, establishing the first center for cutting and polishing precious stones in France.
The commesso shown here was described in the inventory prepared after Henry II's death as having "a small figure of agate who admires herself in a diamond." The figure is Prudence, identified by the mirror into which she gazes; the serpent derives from Matthew 10:16: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." Prudence is one of the four Cardinal Virtues. She guards Henry II's tomb at Saint-Denis and has been associated as well with Henry's queen, Catherine de' Médicis.