Steve Crawford

Image (c) Trustees of the British Museum

Object: Janus Intaglio
Location: The British Museum Room 1 (Enlightenment)

My selected object is this (small) Janus Intaglio. Intaglio in this context refers to a particular form of decoration, usually used in the adornment of semi-precious stones; for engraving or cutting a design into a material[1]. However, when concerning the decorative properties of “seals and gems” it can also refer to an image “cut in reverse in order to produce a positive impression for use as a stamp or seal.”[2] As the image on the object appears to be extruded, this would seem to the case here, the material of production being glass, more precisely a “black glass paste”[3] perhaps lending itself to this engraving process. The image depicted in the glass paste intaglio is a representation of the Roman deity Janus. Janus was the Roman god of doorways, gateways and beginnings, usually depicted, as seen here, with two faces in profile facing in opposing directions. As with most, if not all, sculpture and engraving of Classical Mediterranean Antiquity the male faces are depicted with highly detailed hair and beards.[4] In this image it is the beard(s) and hair that provide the seamless transition from one face to the other.

Considering Janus

As the God of beginnings, gateways and doorways Janus had a varied portfolio of responsibilities. Within the specific remit of Janus came the patronage of the month of January, this being the month of the new year, looking forward, and the old year looking backward. Janus is cited by the poet Ovid as claiming that the winter solstice was the first day of the new sun and the last day of the old.[5] Janus also held a central role in the relationship between Rome, and the ‘state of war’. Upon the official declaration of war by the governing authority of Rome the “‘temple’ of Janus was opened, although strictly speaking it was not actually a temple, rather, a passage (the real meaning of the word janus) . . . When peace returned, the Janus was closed”.[6]

The Romans were past masters at assimilating themselves into the cultures of those vanquished during the process of conquest; often suggesting similarities between their victims and themselves by highlighting the connections between the gods worshipped.[7] The interesting aspect of Janus is that he would appear to be of purely Roman construction, not identifiable in other competing or subjugated societies of the classical Mediterranean. While Janus or Janus-faced is a name or phrase that might be recognised in colloquial usage, Janus is not a God that is especially well known in wider contemporary culture. I find this interesting as whenever Janus is invoked, he plays a considerable role; often competing with Jupiter (the King of the Gods) for primacy.[8] While some degree of explanation here may be provided by the fact that Janus does not have a planet named after him, it must not be forgotten that the month of January is derived from the name of Janus, so an argument about a lack of contemporary relevance does not necessarily hold much water. Perhaps a better explanation might be found in the singularly Roman nature of the god Janus, the lack of presence in the wider classical pantheon’s may contribute to a lessened presence in cross cultural assimilation?

Material consideration: The nature of Glass

As mentioned already the primary material used to produce this object is glass. Glass is usually used in windows, windows are at their most unobtrusive and ‘useful’ when at their clearest. We as a society consider glass to be at its best when we’re not noticing it. Even in the context of glass that is not designed to be as ‘clear’ as possible in its primary function, clarity is crucial. I am speaking now of stained glass, whether any readers share my initial thinking when considering the idea of decorative glass, I couldn’t say, but as many people connected to this project spend a reasonable amount of time in Canterbury it seems safe to assume that stained glass does rise to the mental foreground in certain circumstances. From a personal perspective stained glass seems designed to catch the eye, to become the centre of attention. It does this best by being as transparent as possible to facilitate the fullest illumination of its colouring and/or imagery. Clarity and transparency appear to be the keys to the properties of glass.

Stained glass window, Canterbury Cathedral (c) Steve Crawford

My item doesn’t conform to these expectations, it’s made from “black glass paste”;[9] this doesn’t sound a promising characteristic for the production of ornamental glass. Counter-intuitively it’s the very opacity of the glass used to form this item, and the faces of Janus it displays, that allows the clarity of the image to be so pronounced. The starkness of the image standing out on the object would not be nearly so noticeable if this were an image formed in, or on, transparent glass. Paradoxically the seamless transitions between the two faces of Janus so well created by the careful incision of the hair and beard(s) is so successful because it is produced in a material that itself is denied that primary function of glass: transparency. This image of Janus can be seen because light cannot transition through this glass.

Janus and the Bill of Rights

The reasoning behind my selection of this object can be traced to an innocuous quote in a history book: Restoration Politics, Religion and Culture. In reference to the public administration of Restoration England the authors write:

The king relied on a social pyramid stretching down from leading peers … down to yeomen and merchants undertaking the often arduous offices located within parishes and wards. This very large number of men stood between the king and their own neighbours, and represented a Janus-faced wall of functioning administration. When looking one way, they could choose to explain and enforce the king’s will; when looking another, they might represent their localities’ anxieties and hopes to the king.[10]

This gap between people and ruler becomes perhaps even deeper when one considers that many of the lowest level of governmental office holders, were unable to participate in national government; the required numbers for filling administrative posts outstripped the size of the electoral franchise considerably.[11] Not only was the seat of administrative power out of touch with its subjects, and the higher echelons increasingly staffed by Catholics, the people often having to actually do the hands on administration within in their communities had no real way to report their dissatisfactions with proceedings.[12] The attempted absolute monarchic reign of James II came to a shuddering halt in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the legal representation of this, and the focus of my PhD research is the English 1688 Bill of Rights.[13]

This reference to Janus was something of a breakthrough moment for me in how to think about the legitimacy of the Bill of Rights as a constitutional settlement. Instead of trying to reconcile conservative and radical reform agendas and think about how they might ‘fit’ into a single document; I re-orientated my ‘view’. By picturing how the Bill of Rights itself might be Janus-faced: simultaneously presenting a radical face of constitutional reform, and a conservative restatement of the Ancient Constitution, freed from the tyranny of the ‘Norman Yoke’.[14] When factoring in the counter-intuitive nature of the glass in my chosen representation of Janus, this becomes even simpler. Rather than allowing both sides to have a ‘transparent’ view of the whole Bill of Rights, might a part of its legitimacy not be facilitated precisely by the closing down of this unifying panorama? Might the document present two distinct facets of itself to two opposing political positions, preventing interaction within the document between these two sides, and the aspects of the legal reforms it makes that appeal to each group. By embracing this perspective, I was presented with the ability not only to conceive of how people might view the Bill of Rights, but also how the Bill itself might ‘perceive’ its environment and react in a Janus-faced way by creating a chameleon like camouflage for itself.

The obligatory bit

As part of the guidance for the Legal object workshop 2017 we were asked to consider the implications of our chosen items and their status as collected objects. I have a confession to make, prior to studying law I was, briefly, something of an Archaeologist. This, I think, may have shaped my thinking in this regard; to cut to the chase I prefer our heritage, as a species, to accessible to all somewhere, somehow. Yes, museums, and their history, are problematic. Yes, our collective history and the role of empire and colonialism leave a huge legacy which we are still dealing with to this day, and may well continue to be dealing with forever. However, ultimately, when push comes to shove, I belief museums can be, should be a positive thing for our global society. I also think that perhaps finally with initiatives such as the online collection of the British Museum and the wider Google Cultural Institute we might just be starting to turn the corner, a degree of pragmatism and practicality is required, but maybe these undertakings, and others they hopefully inspire, will allow us to move past questions of ownership linked to territorial locality. Instead, to begin thinking of shared, free, access to a global cultural heritage. The opening up of access and awareness seems to me to be the best way to begin addressing issues of division and exclusion within global society, we are all human, lets collectively marvel in our diverse achievements. I do apologise, if anybody feels this is an unsatisfactory or unpalatable conclusion, please do feel free to ask me about this aspect. I have much more I could say, just not enough space to write it here, if anybody wishes to pursue this further I can be reached at; or alternatively come along to the SLSA conference 2017 Pop-up Museum of Legal Objects where I will be presenting a ‘larger’ version of this commentary.

Thank you for reading.


[1] Gerald Ward (ed), The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art (OUP, 2008) page 286.

[2] See British Museum website: Intaglio scope note, accessed 07/02/2017.

[3] See British Museum website: Collection online intaglio: accessed 07/02/2017.

[4] See: Norbert Haas, Francoise Toppe & Beate Henz, ‘Hairstyles in the Arts of Greek and Roman Antiquity’ (2008) vol 10 (3) Journal of Investigative Dermatology (Symposium Proceedings) 298.

[5] Robert Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome: Religion in Everyday Life from Archaic to Imperial Times (Antonia Nevill tr, Edinburgh University Press, 2000) page 62.

[6] Ibid, page 95.

[7] See Clifford Ando, The Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire (University of California Press, 2009) page 136; Guy de la Bédoyère, The Romans For Dummies (Wiley, 2006) page 157.

[8] See generally: Turcan n 5.

[9] The British Museum n 3.

[10] George Southcombe & Grant Tapsell, Restoration Politics, Religion and Culture: Britain and Ireland, 1660-1714 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) page 97.

[11] For an historical overview of the nature and scale of office holding in this period see: Mark Goldie, ‘The Unacknowledged Republic: Officeholding in Early Modern England’ in Tim Harris (ed), The politics of the excluded, c. 1500-1850 (Palgrave, 2001); and Joan Kent, ‘The Centre and the Localities: State Formation and Parish Government in England, circa 1640-1740’ The Historical Journal (1995) vol 28 (2) 363.

[12] Southcomb & Tapsell n 10. For additional historical overviews of this regime transition see: Tim Harris, Revolution: The Great Crisis of the British Monarchy, 1685-1720 (Penguin, 2007); Steve Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution (Yale University Press, 2009).

[13] Bill of Rights [1688] (Chapter 2 1 Will and Mar Sess 2).

[14] “The belief that Anglo-Saxon institutions had been essentially democratic until replaced by autocracy under the Normans”: See John Cannon, ‘Norman Yoke’ in his, The Oxford Companion to British History (OUP,2009) accessed 20/03/2017.