jerusalem cross, medieval jewelry

Medieval Treasures: The History of Jewelry

As we explored in last week’s blog, which looked at the role the Byzantine Empire played in the history of jewelry, “luxuries like jewelry all but disappeared from European life” after Constantinople fells and Europe entered its “Dark Ages.”

During the prosperous Byzantine era, jewelry was widespread among the classes.  Within this new, dark period, however, fine jewelry was limited to the aristocracy, royalty, and clergy (if anything remained of the Byzantine Empire, it was the importance of religion in society and in daily life).  In the Church, God’s glory was tangibly reflected in golden bejeweled altars and chalices, fine icons and artwork, and beautiful texts.

Miss the first parts of our History of Jewelry blog series?
Click here for Part I | Click here for Part II | Click here for Part III

Who wore it best?

Hanging Reliquary. Germany. Third quarter of 12th century. Vernis brun and gilding on copper over wooden core; cabochons and rock crystal. Via William Francis Warden Fund

Remnants of the Justinian Code (discussed in last week’s blog) concerning jewelry and what certain classes could wear were carried into this period.  However, these notions were influenced more by prosperity (or lack thereof) than written rules.  “At the beginning of the Medieval era, the only people wealthy enough to afford jewels and fine metals were the nobility. However, with the expansion of trade and commerce and therefore a more developed and larger middle class, more people could afford jewelry.”

Even so, gold, silver, and precious gemstones were limited to nobility, royalty, and the clergy while the lower echelons of society donned jewelry made with base metals (akin to modern “fast fashion” costume jewelry).  Accordingly, jewelry was a status symbol.  While many examples of upper class jewelry have been discovered, not much is known about the jewelry of commoners.  What we do know is that they reserved their pieces for special occasions, like weddings.

During the Middle Ages, the notion of what we now call “fashion” and “trends” emerged.  Modes of dress came in and out of style quickly; new styles contrasted the ones they replaced.  “Brooches were undoubtedly the most popular type of medieval jewelry.  During the late medieval times, it was also fashion to decorate belts with gems.”

With the scarcity of jewelry, these precious adornments became noted for their practical value in addition to their beauty.  As we had touched upon in our Coin Jewelry blog series, jewelry was an easy form of currency – highly valuable and easily transportable.  Brooches, bracelets, and other pieces acted as a sort of currency or collateral.  As styles changed and pieces switched hands, new owners would alter the jewelry to reflect the current fashion – switching out gemstones, removing passe decorations, etc..  It is rare to find a piece of jewelry from this period that has not been changed in some way.

Substance over style

Triptych Pendant depicting Martyrdom of Saint Barbara, Mary Magdalen, and Saint Gereon. Germany. 1504. Basse-taille enamel and gilding on silver. Via 1941 Purchase Fund.

Fittingly, medieval jewelry followed the artistic and architectural style of the time: Gothic.  “Pointed rather than rounded forms were used and the heavy, dense surface decoration that had been a remnant from the classical past were replaced by more simple and elegant designs.” Gothic details like openwork patterns (commonly seen in the windows of cathedrals and castles) found themselves being replicated in medieval jewelry.

Although still beautiful, jewelry also took on more of a symbolic meaning.  Perhaps influenced by its near-exclusivity to the clergy (along with the upper classes and royalty), Christian iconography flourished.  Vignettes and biblical stories and figures were portrayed, brilliantly colored with enamels and precious gemstones.

In terms of Christian designs, a cross known as the “Jerusalem” (or “Crusaders”) Cross gained momentum.  First used in first used in 1099 as a coat of arms by Crusades leader Godfrey de Bouillon for the newly established Kingdom of Jerusalem, this “cross symbolized Jesus Christ and the city of Jerusalem [as] the root of Christianity.”  You can read more about this design in our Symbols of Faith blog series (click here).

Jewelry also took on symbolic meaning, again perhaps influenced by its value within Christianity as a corporeal symbol of His glory. “In medieval English inventories, the beauty of a stone counted for much less than the estimation of its talismanic value. Precious stones were considered to have had powers of their own, and their influence was strengthened by particular selection and arrangements.”

Protective and miraculous qualities were attributed to various gemstones.  Keeping in mind the spread of diseases like the plague during the time along with a difficultly low quality of life, this positive attribution is not surprising.

Make it work!

Two Medallions. France. ca. 1420. Ivory, polychromy & gilding, (later mount: gilt silver and glass). Via Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917

Christianity played an important role in medieval jewelry not just stylistically, but in making the jewelry as well.  Monasteries were founded throughout Europe during this period:

“It is these monasteries that acted as a hub for the art of goldsmithing.  Here the techniques were initially taught to secular jewelers who inhabited the newly founded cities of the 10th and 11th century. […] This marked the beginning of the self-employed, secular jeweler-goldsmith as we know him now. The organisation of goldsmiths in guilds stimulated education and collaboration of independent goldsmiths and sparked things like quality control.”

In terms of decoration, gemstones were typically polished into a cabochon (or rounded) shape rather than cut into facets (as we commonly see today).  Enameling also remained fairly popular as it allowed craftsmen and artisans to enhance beautiful scenes and design details with color.

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