Splendour & Precision

15 December 2015 until 24 September 2017

Herakles (fifth century BC, collection: National Museum of Antiquities)Herakles (fifth century BC, collection: National Museum of Antiquities)
Gem with the triumph of Emperor Constantine (312, collection: National Museum of Antiquities)Gem with the triumph of Emperor Constantine (312, collection: National Museum of Antiquities)

This exhibition presents the finest and most exceptional precious and semi-precious stones from the collection of the National Museum of Antiquities – more than one hundred engraved gems from the ancient Near East, Egypt and the classical world. Many are no larger than a fingertip. The stones are engraved with symbols, magic spells and images of gods, animals and emperors.

Exquisite engravings on gemstones

The stones were used for various purposes. The earliest ones served as seals for making impressions in soft materials. Later gems were worn or carried as personal ornaments – usually rings, but sometimes talismans or amulets. The exquisite engraved designs were thought to imbue the gems with special powers. For example, the gods and rituals depicted on cylinder seals from Mesopotamia were thought to protect property and to lend force to agreements marked with the seals.

Discover the craftsmanship of the engravers

In this exhibition, you will discover the remarkable craftsmanship of gem-cutters in the ancient world and in the centuries that followed. You will learn the symbolic meanings of various types of gems and the many different images with which they were decorated. Huge enlargements of some of these tiny scenes will be on display in the museum gallery. You will also be introduced to the owners and admirers of the gems and the many ways they have been used through the centuries. The exhibition will also include prints, drawings, and antique cabinets that once belonged to nineteenth-century collectors.

The largest collection of engraved gems in the Netherlands

This is the first exhibition about the rich collection of engraved gems at the National Museum of Antiquities: some 6,300 carved precious and semi-precious stones, cylinder seals and stamps, and seal impressions. It is the largest collection of its kind in the Netherlands. Some gems are thousands of years old, while others were made as late as the seventeenth century. After the closure of the Dutch Money Museum in 2013, the culture ministry (OCW) transferred some 4,300 of these objects into the collection of the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO). The rest of the RMO collection has been acquired by the museum itself since its founding in 1818.


Stephen Sack | the contemporary American photographer and artist Stephen Sack made a series of sixteen photographs of gems from the collection. Sack drew inspiration from the wide variety of colours and images. These photos grace the walls of the exhibition gallery.
» Read more and view a photograph in full-screen

Conference on engraved gemsWith international experts | 3-4 November 2016