Medallion with a Portrait of Gennadios

Date: 250–300

Geography: Made in Alexandria, Egypt

Culture: Roman

Medium: Glass, gold leaf, polychromy

Dimensions: Overall: 1 5/8 x 1/4 in. (4.1 x 0.6 cm)

Classification: Glass-Gold glass

Credit Line: Fletcher Fund, 1926

Accession Number: 26.258


This exquisite portrait head shows a youth from Alexandria, the cosmopolitan Egyptian city that had been founded by Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 B.C.) in 331 B.C. The medallion was probably a prize for the winner of a musical contest: the inscription in Greek—the cultural language of the city—identifies the youth as "Gennadios, most skilled in music." The masterfully naturalistic image, drawn with a fine point on gold leaf, was applied to the upper surface of a dark blue glass disk. A second, clear disk was then placed on top of the first, to seal the image. The beveled edges of the disks suggest that the medallion was meant to be mounted and worn as a pendant.

The medallion dates from a time when the Roman Empire was increasingly aware of the need to better protect such wealthy eastern provinces as Egypt. Gennadios's city, the major port at the mouth of the Nile, would become the third-largest city in the Byzantine Empire, after Constantinople and Rome. Under Byzantine rule it would also continue to be the great intellectual center it had been under the Greeks and Romans.