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A Journey Through Byzantine Jewelry

The Byzantine Empire began in 330 when Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) founded Constantinople (today Istanbul), establishing it as the capital of the Byzantium, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire. It ended in 1453 when Ottoman Turks conquered the city.[1] For most of Byzantium's history, Christianity was the official state religion, but Greek and Roman beliefs influenced Byzantine culture, including with iconography in art and on Jewelry.[2] Byzantine jewelry, particularly the pieces worn by Byzantine royalty, played an important symbolic role in the empire.

Golden Ages

Within Byzantium's 1000 year history, art historians often identify two "golden ages." The first golden age covered the earliest centuries of the empire, when classical Roman and Greek themes heavily influenced Byzantine art and culture, including jewelry.[3] Even early on, Roman influence began combining with that of other influential cities, such as Alexandria and Antioch. According to scholars, by the sixth century, these influences had combined to create distinctive Byzantine art. Although the empire developed its own artistic forms, it utilized many aspects of the cultures that shaped it, such as the heavy use of gold, pearls, and precious stones; coins as or as part of jewelry; cloisonné enamel; inset colored pastes; and stone inlay.[4] Byzantium's second golden age was from approximately 843 to 1262, when the empire had stretched its influence much further to the north, south, and northwest. Due to its vast size, the empire now had even more cultural and ethnic influences to incorporate into its art. It continued to feature Christian and Islamic religious themes. [5]

Precious Materials

Byzantine people considered certain materials to be particularly precious, sometimes even associating them with symbolic myths. Pearls, for example, were both rare and difficult to acquire: Byzantium imported them from the coast of India, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. Finding them in these areas involved dangerous diving expeditions, a difficulty which increased their value and the perception of their power. The Byzantines believed that pearls were created when a lightning bolt struck an oyster shell. The remnants of the lightening were thought to remain in the pearl and serve as the source of the pearl's luminosity. In addition to jewelry, Byzantines used pearls in any other place they wanted to imitate the appearance of light, whether on the cover of a book or as part of a large mosaic.[6]

It was also common in the Byzantine Empire to use coins as jewelry or to make larger pieces of jewelry. While this may shock our contemporary sensibilities, it is important to consider why Byzantines found it logical. They saw coins as portable portraits of the emperor, who played a crucial political and cultural role. They often measured time in terms of how long a ruler had been in power, and wearing his image showed their confidence in the empire's wealth and stability. They even associated amuletic properties with these miniature portraits, believing that wearing them could provide some kind of protection.[7] One particularly stunning example of this practice is a necklace in the Byzantine collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It feature a plain, hollow neck ring with a large central medallion surrounded by fourteen coins, which depict Byzantine emperors.

Royal Byzantine Jewelry

Jewelry for Byzantine royals and their close associates was both sumptuous and symbolic. Artisans used the best materials, particularly those like pearls and coins, which were considered powerful, and precious gems that were associated with heaven.[8] Stiff restrictions only allowed people in courtly circles to wear jewelry with both pearls and gyms. According to Melanie Holcomb, Byzantine ceremonial crowns "carried a curse of death for those who wore them without the Patriarch's permission."[9] Only the best artisans in the court workshop crafted royal jewelry for the Byzantine Imperial family. It was crucially important that they did not share their secrets of jewelry making. Their expertise and processes were kept hidden so that Byzantine royal jewelry would remain distinct from all else. Sometimes myths arose that certain, exquisite pieces were made by divine hands, rather than human hands.[10] Some royal jewelry used iconography to emphasize a ruler's power. Hellenistic gods and heroes continued to appear on Byzantine jewelry alongside Christian imagery. A necklace could feature military trophies, political symbols, or imperial insignia.[11] Other pieces of jewelry conveyed the wearer's power with even more specificity by indicating their position and allegiances. Crossbow brooches, which were shaped to resemble the medieval crossbow, would be seen on the right shoulder of certain high ranking government officials.[12] The Metropolitan Museum of Art has some examples of this style of brooch made from precious metals, such as this one which features the Latin cross.

The emperor wore an especially dazzling outfit known as the imperial loros, for special occasions a few times each year, such as on Easter Sunday. Although based on the togas worn by Roman consuls, it was far more colorful and encrusted with jewelry. It included jewels, elaborate embroidery, and small enameled plaques that were sewn into the fabric. Part of the loros was the superhumeral, a special decorative collar, often made with golden cloth then studded with gems and drop pearls and adorned with decorative embroidery. They likely also wore shoes and gloves embedded with pearls, jewels, and perhaps enameled plaques.[13]

For women, jewelry could also symbolize their proximity to imperial power, even if they did not hold the same political influence as men. The state controlled the production and distribution of materials like silk and precious stones, so a woman who wore these things was clearly indicating that she was close to imperial powers. Although we know less about the other symbolism involved in women's jewelry, scholars theorize that individual pieces could convey wealth and family connections. One of the most famous examples of women's adornment is the crown of the Byzantine empress, with its cascade of pearls that draped down to adorn the empress' shoulders.[14] On important occasions Empresses also wore their own version of the Emperor's loros. [15]

Royal and Political Gifts

Gift between rulers held great symbolic importance and jewelry was often an elegant and practical option for royal exchanges. While extremely valuable, jewelry was also relatively small and therefore more portable than other potential diplomatic presents. It was therefore used by rulers when exchanging gifts to maintain and strengthen international diplomatic relationships. When Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042-1055) presented gifts to the caliph al-Mustansir (r.1036-1094), he and Empress Zoe also presented five chests of gold jewelry to the ruler's mother.[16]

Byzantine Luxury Today

If you want to view historic Byzantine jewelry, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cleveland Art Museum both have a variety of pieces in their collection that you can view from the comfort of your own home. If you feel inspired to add the Byzantine feel to your own jewelry collection, the Museum of Jewelry has some beautiful options inspired by the sumptuous elegance of Byzantine jewelry. There are several pieces featuring crosses and even some enamel icons. Other items feature the gold, precious gems, and pearls that Byzantines prized so highly.

About the Author

Charlotte Moy is a freelance writer who holds a PhD in History and several years of teaching experience. She loves finding the weird and wonderful parts of history that grab your attention and excels at researching and creating content on other topics as well. Find out more about her on LinkedIn



Footnotes:

[1] Helen C. Evans, "The Arts of Byzantium," The Metropolitan Museum Art Bulletin 58, no. 4 (Spring 2001): 4.

[2] Evans, 5.

[3] "The Glory of Byzantium's Jewelry Riches."

[4] William M. Milliken, "Byzantine Jewelry and Associated Pieces," The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 34, no. 7 (Sep. 1947): 166-167.

[5] "The Glory of Byzantium's Jewelry Riches."

[6] Melanie Holcomb, "Stagecraft and Statecraft," in Jewelry, The Body Transformed, ed. Melanie Holcomb (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018), 99 and 118.

[7] Holcomb, 118.

[8] Holcomb, 97 and 99.

[9] Holcomb, 97.

[10] Holcomb, 99-100.

[11] Holcomb, 100.

[12] Holcomb, 117.

[13] "Byzantine Dress," Wikipedia.

[14] Holcomb, 117.

[15] "Byzantine Dress."

[16] Holcomb, 103.


References:

"Byzantine Dress." Wikipedia.

Evans, Helen C. "The Arts of Byzantium." The Metropolitan Museum Art Bulletin 58, no. 4 (Spring 2001): 3-69.

Holcomb, Melanie. "Stagecraft and Statecraft." In Jewelry, The Body Transformed, edited by Melanie Holcomb, 117-121. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018.

Milliken, William M. "Byzantine Jewelry and Associated Pieces." The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 34, no. 7 (Sep. 1947): 166-175, 183.

"The Glory of Byzantium's Jewelry Riches." Jewelers Circular Keystone 169, no. 2 (Feb. 1998).




Further Reading:

Pillsbury, Joanne. "The Regal Body." In Jewelry, The Body Transformed, edited by Melanie Holcomb, 97-103. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018.



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