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Porphyry is a term used to describe hard igneous rock that contains crystals, usually of feldspar or quartz, that are dispersed in a reddish or purple fine-grained groundmass. It is a very dense stone making it hard to master except by a talented and well-equipped craftsman. As a decorative item, it has delighted pharaohs, Caesars, emperors and kings for millennia. The word ‘porphyry’ comes from ancient Greek meaning ‘purple.’  The earliest known use of porphyry came in the form of columns used in the Minoan Palace in Knossos, Crete, as early as 1850 B.C. The porphyry was quarried in the eastern desert of Egypt and became known as ‘Imperial’ grade. The use of Egyptian porphyry in ancient Egypt and Rome was structural as well as decorative. Porphyry appears as a central panel on the floor of the Pantheon carved as togas and busts of Emperors and notable citizens. In the Byzantine period, the Hagia Sophia was decorated with porphyry columns. The deep red/purple color represented royalty and power and was very sought-after. The use of porphyry over more common stones indicated that the owner was worthy of the respect this material brought. Many kings and emperors  used this rare material for royal or imperial burial and entombed themselves in richly carved sarcophagi, tombs, or chapels sculpted from porphyry. The Medici family created a family chapel in Florence featuring six large porphyry sarcophagus with porphyry-decorated walls. Napoleon was put to rest in a Louis Visconti-designed tomb thought to be porphyry at the time, but it is in fact made of the stone called quartzite. In the early 18th century, a darker type of porphyry was discovered in Alvdalen, Sweden, and in the Ural mountains in Russia. The quarry in Alvdalen evolved into a commercial enterprise in 1788. It was owned by the royal family in the 19th century and used for creating official gifts for foreign dignitaries or as tokens of royal favor. King Karl IV Johann was instrumental in spearheading the production of porphyry for export. The Russians used porphyry to enrich their palaces in St. Petersburg, such as Pavlovsk and Peterhof. Many royal Russian objects made of porphyry are finely embellished with ormolu mounts to elevate their status. 

We are pleased to be offering a massive pair of Swedish porphyry campana urns in our Fine European Furniture, Decorations and Fine Art sale on October 21. These amazing works were sculpted from porphyry mostly likely quarried in Sweden in the first half of the 19th century. Other porphyry highlights in the sale include a porphyry and marble bust of Julius Caesar, a pair of Swedish porphyry salts, and a Louis XVI Ormolu Brule Parfum with a porphyry base. 

Time & Location

Fine European Furniture, Decorations and Fine Art
Thursday, October 21 at 11am

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