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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