This upper portion of a bronze vessel, beautifully decorated with enamel inlay (champlevé), is a very rare example of the superb work produced in Roman Gaul in the first to third centuries AD. It would have originally comprised a rounded lower section and an elegant, narrow neck, giving it a pear shape. The lug in the form of a bull’s head at the base of the neck would have had an attached loop for suspension, or perhaps a swinging handle. If used for suspension, it is possible that the vessel may have been used a sprinkler in lustration (purification) ceremonies. Bulls were highly venerated in Celtic society, which may also suggest a ceremonial use for this vessel; they were greatly admired for their power and virility, but their aggressive dominance was perceived as wholly beneficent, and they were considered protectors of man and bringers of abundance and fertility.
This portion of the vessel is decorated with four registers of deeply cut patterns inlaid with red and blue glass. The upper row is comprised of crescents in alternating blue and red, while the three lower registers have rows of interlaced spirals or ‘wave pattern’ in alternating directions, in blue and red. The tradition of decorating bronze vessels with enamel ornament had long been part of the Celtic artistic repertoire, and the style retained popularity into the Roman era. The effect, known as champlevé, was achieved by firing a finely ground powder until it was completely melted and therefore fused to the metal background. Bronze bowls, cups, boxes, and fibulae were all decorated in this technique, in a variety of patterns, the bright colours of the enamel complimenting the shining surface of the bronze to create glittering compositions.
The majority of objects in this technique originate from the western provinces of the Roman Empire, primarily, England, France, Germany, and northern Italy, although some examples were exported as far as the Black Sea coast in south Russia. This example is very likely a product of the same workshop as a fine pear-shaped vessel with similar decoration now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. 47.100.5). That example was discovered at La Guierce, close to Limoges in France, along with gold and silver jewelry and Roman coins dating to as late as 273 AD. An example of a suspended sprinkler vessel, from Ambleteuse, near Boulogne, is displayed in the British Museum (inv. 1843,0623.1, third century AD).
The vessel in the Metropolitan Museum and other similar finds are discussed by W. H. Forsyth, ‘Provincial Roman Enamels Recently Acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’, The Art Bulletin 32, 4 (1950), pp. 296-307.
For other Roman examples now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, see M. True and K. Hamma, eds., A Passion for Antiquities. Ancient Art from the Collection of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman (Malibu, 1994), pp. 289-91, no. 150 (an aryballos, late first century AD) and pp. 318-319, no. 165 (vessel with foot and handle, third century AD).
For the earlier Celtic enamelled bowls, R. L. S. Bruce-Mitford and S. Raven, The Corpus of Late Celtic Hanging Bowls with an account of the bowls found in Scandinavia (Oxford, 2005).
French Art Market, 1990s.