Early Byzantine Jewelry Part 3: How Did Byzantine Finger Rings Become the Best?

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Finger rings have survived in greater numbers than other Byzantine ornaments. The majority are figured with the beautiful symbolism of the Christian belief. Some are set with engraved gems, but on most the design is produced by the more simple process of engraving the metal of which the ring is composed.

In early Christian times rings were often offered as presents, and were engraved with expressions of goodwill towards the recipient, whose name is sometimes mentioned. The British Museum contains a somewhat extensive collection of these rare objects in gold. Bronze, often gilded, is naturally the commoner material. Silver appears to have been scarcely ever employed.

The interest of the majority of Byzantine rings arises rather from the subjects with which they are associated, than from the quality of their workmanship. There is, however, in the British Museum a very beautiful example of pierced gold work in the form of a key ring with projecting tongue, of a kind much used in Roman times, which opened the lock by lifting a latch.

Upon the front of a wide hoop are the words Accipe diilcis, in letters reserved in metal in a pierced ground. The remainder of the hoop is divided into compartments, each containing one letter of the inscription Mnltis annis. Above the inscription, in front, is a rectangular projection, perhaps for insertion into a lock. It is finely pierced with a design in the form of Greek crosses.

The sack of Constantinople by the French and Venetians dealt the death-blow to Byzantine art. Until well into the thirteenth century the Byzantine goldsmiths continued to exercise an important influence on their contemporaries, and transmitted to the artists of medieval Europe such of the processes and designs of antique art as they had preserved. Their intercourse was closest with Russia, whose jewelry for centuries, has followed the designs of the old Byzantine workmen.

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Early Byzantine Jewelry Part 2: Facts that Will Impress Your Friends

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In the majority of ornaments, however, precious stones appear to have predominated. As ornaments for the head, wreaths were worn, especially upon festive occasions. From the earliest Christian times the bride and bridegroom at their wedding wore, as in some countries at the present day, crowns of gold, silver, green leaves, or flowers, which were afterwards returned to the church.

Early Byzantine earrings naturally follow the Roman patterns. Some take the form of a penannular wire loop holding a thimble-shaped cage of filigree, the flat end of which is closed, and has in the center a setting for a precious stone. The majority of Byzantine earrings are, however, of a peculiar design. The most usual type, from the sixth century onward, is crescent-shaped, formed of gold repouss and open-worked in the form of a cross patee within a circle, supported on either side by peacocks confronted.

Dating from the finest period, i.e. about the twelfth century, is a pair of earrings in the British Museum, in the shape of a segment of a circle, ornamented on both sides with figures of birds in blue, green, and white cloisonne. Upon the outer border of each segment are pearls fixed upon radiating pins, alternating with pyramids of pellets; on the inner is a disc decorated with similar enamels.

The cross is naturally the most favorite of pendants, yet this symbol does not appear to have been commonly worn on the person till about the fifth century. Among the most interesting pectoral crosses in the British Museum is one inscribed with a text from Galatians 14, upon its arms and lower part are rings for pendent gems, and in the center the setting for a stone.

Another cross, ornamented with nielloed’ figures of our Lord, the Virgin, and two angels or military saints, has the name of its owner inscribed at the back. Both date from about the tenth or eleventh century. One of the finest and the best known of such ornaments is the gold and enameled pectoral cross in the Victoria and Albert Museum, known as the Beresford-Hope Cross.

This remarkable specimen of Byzantine jewelry, dating from about the eighth century, is formed of two cruciform plates of gold, hinged so as to form a reliquary, and set in a silver-gilt frame of later workmanship than the cross itself.

The figures upon it, executed in translucent cloisonne enamel, represent on one part the Savior on the cross, with busts of the Virgin and St. John on either side, and on the other a full-length figure of the Virgin and the heads of four saints. Jewelry ornamented in this manner is of great rarity, being executed nearly always upon pure gold, it has seldom escaped the crucible.

Judging from the mosaics, as, for example, the portraits of Justinian in the churches of San Vitale and Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna, brooches of the circular type appear to have been generally worn. Their chief characteristic was the presence of three chains set Niello: a composition of lead, silver, sulfur, and borax with jewels attached to them by loops.

Coins, as in Roman times, were frequently mounted as brooches in a beaded or open-work edging. Bow-shaped brooches were worn, but not after the sixth century. Three inscribed examples of about the fourth century, one of them of gold, are in the British Museum. Similar in workmanship to the crescent-shaped earrings described above, and of about the same date, is a remarkable gold bracelet in the Franks Bequest. It is formed of an open-work hoop decorated with swans and peacocks enclosed in scrolls issuing from a vase. A circular medallion with a repousse bust of the Virgin forms the clasp.

Continued in Part 3

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THE peculiar interest of Byzantine jewelry lies, not only in its own composite nature, but in the great influence it exercised on European ornaments during the greater part of the Middle Ages. Byzantine jewelry is the result of a compromise between Oriental and Western influences.

It retains the craftsmanship of ancient Rome and the dignity of classical traditions modified by Christian ideas, and to these it unites the skill in patient and exuberant decoration in which the Oriental workman excels.

The new era, inaugurated in 330 a.d. by the transfer by Constantine of the seat of empire to the old colony of Byzantium, was marked at first by a retention of the Greek and Latin influences ; but the quantities of pearls and precious stones that passed through Constantinople, the highway of commerce between Europe and the East, soon rendered the workmen of the Empire susceptible to the magnificence of Oriental decoration.

Owing to the irruption of Oriental ideas in the sixth century consequent on the sack of Antioch by the Persians and the conquests of Belisarius, splendour of material began to supersede the refinement of classical times. This tendency is admirably displayed on the rich mosaics of the period, especially those in the church of San Vitale at Ravenna in Italy, which represent the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora.

The Empress and her attendants are clothed in robes stiffened with gold and set with precious stones; pearls, rubies, and emeralds encircle her neck and shoulders, and, entirely covering her head, hang down from the temples in rich festoons upon the breast.

Justinian also has a diadem upon his head, and a purple and gold embroidered mantle fastened with a monstrous fibula hung with triple pendants.

The outbreak of iconoclasm in the eighth century had its influence on jewelry in causing the banishment of forms ornamented with the proscribed figures. But the iconoclastic movement was also of very great importance, since many goldsmiths driven from their country by the decrees of Leo III established themselves in Italy, Germany, and Gaul, carrying with them the processes and designs of Byzantine art.

The restoration of images by Basil the Macedonian in the ninth century opened an important period of revival of industry and art, which lasted until the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. The active overland trade with India which had been kept up for many years, with no small influence on the ornaments of the West, was much augmented; while the commercial relations with Persia were maintained.

It was during the period from the tenth century onward that the influence of Byzantine art was most strongly felt in the West, owing to the connection which was established between the German court and Constantinople, through the marriage of the Emperor Otho II with the Byzantine Princess Theophano, daughter of Romanus, in 972.

A considerable proportion of Byzantine ornaments, as shown by the mosaics, consisted of gems sewn upon the dress. Actual specimens of jewelry are naturally of considerable rarity. The British Museum contains a small but representative collection.’ They show a ‘ Dalton (O. M.), Catalog of early Christian antiquities in the British Museum. 1901.

BYZANTINE differs from the jewels of classical times chiefly in the substitution of coarse repouss^ and open-work—the opus interrasile of later Roman work—for fine filigree and granulation; yet filigree was employed with skill, and exercised a considerable influence on the work of European craftsmen.

In general form the ornaments of the Lower Empire retained the character of ancient work, but added to it fresh designs to suit the change of religion with its accompanying symbolism. Enamel and colored stones, employed with a certain reserve in antique ornaments, now formed the chief artistic aspect of jewelry. Cloisonne inlay, that is to say the incrustation of glass or garnet in cells, was made use of, but cloisonn enamel was preferred.

Continued in Part 2

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