Portrait of Berenike II

Greek, Hellenistic. Mid-3rd century BC
Garnet
2002.4.1
Gift of the Nathan Rubin-Ida Ladd Family Foundation

The features of this exquisite sculpture suggest that it is not an idealized goddess, such as Aphrodite or Artemis, but rather a portrait. Medium and style indicate a royal context. Comparison with coin portraits suggests that this may well be a portrait of Berenike II, wife of Ptolemy III Soter.

Berenike II was a famous beauty and patron of the arts in her day. A number of poems dedicated to her by court poets such as Callimachus and Theocritus have come down to us. None is more famous than one concerning a lock of her hair that she dedicated in a temple to ensure the safe return of her husband from war in Syria. When he returned safely, the lock of hair was nowhere to be found, and it was only the ingenuity of the court astronomer Conon who discovered that the lock had been taken up into the heavens and turned into a constellation, the Coma Berenikes (a group of eight stars that continues to bear her name). Callimachus' poem is only preserved in fragments, but a Latin translation of it by Catullus gives a sense of the original.

Garnets, which in classical antiquity came from India, suddenly enter Greek glyptic in the third century, in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Their Greek name, "anthrax", means burning charcoal, a reference to their intense, translucent, glowing red color. Physical attractiveness apart, garnets were thus a perfect gemstone to complement the literary images of the fiery passion of love. The present portrait may originally have been part of an elaborate jewelry setting in gold.