Lycurgus Cup, 4th century AD
Silver and glass
158.8 (height) x 132 (diameter) mm
Rome, Italy

 

This magnificent drinking cup is the only complete surviving example made from dichroic glass, a special type of glass containing small amounts of gold and silver, which allow it to turn from opaque green to a brilliant translucent red when exposed to the light. The rare figural imagery on this ‘cage-cup’ is skillfully executed in incredibly high relief, so much so that some figures appear to be nearly freestanding.
The cup illustrates Lycurgus, the mythical king of Thrace, attacking Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and his female followers, including Ambrosia the nymph. Mother Earth had answered Ambrosia’s prayers for help by changing her into a vine so that she could entrap the unruly king. Here, the vine branches restrain Lycurgus as Dionysus, Pan, and a satyr (a male follower of Dionysus) torture him for his poor behavior.
The Dionysian theme, combined with the vine design and specially shifting, semi-translucent coloration evocative of wine, suggest that the cup may have been part of a wealthy Roman’s banquet set. It is also possible that the vessel was used as a lamp after a gilded silver rim and base were added in the late 1700s.

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