Byzantine Jewelry - History and Art During The Middle Ages

Byzantine Jewelry - History and Art During The Middle Ages

by Mary Grace Tacderas

Byzantine jewelry is dubbed as the queen B when it comes to historical jewelry pieces for its grand and extravagant large designs made from yellow gold and a myriad of gemstones. Byzantine jewelry, history, and art during the middle ages were so remarkable that everyone who has the chance to lay eyes on them will be amazed and can only wonder about the amount of wealth power the Byzantine Empire once had.

Byzantine Empire

Wealthy, the word that can describe the Byzantine Empire. Having gold mines within its territories, combined with a perfect position for trade, the civilization became largest and most potent starting from 330AD when the then Emperor Constantine the first decided to build a new Greek colony in the East, he called Constantinople the Rome of the East or the new Rome. The Empire survived for more than a thousand years while its western half creased in 476AD. It only fell under the attack of the Ottoman army in1453 under Constantinople eleventh.

The name originated from the Greek word Byzantium coined by a man named Byzas. It was valued for its location and designed to be the center of trade between Asia and Europe. The East and West had a unified front under the rule of Constantine until he died in 337AD. The East and West were split by the succeeding Emperor Valentinian the first, where he reigned over the west, while his brother on the east. This may be the start of its downfall, as the west was continually attacked by German Visigoths until it finally fell in 476 under Romulus Augustus.

The Byzantine Empire was spared from outside attacks due to its location and emperors that had gathered enough army countering outsiders' attacks, effectively using their wealth.

Justinian the First

By Petar Milošević - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

A highly remarkable first ruler of the Byzantine Empire from 525 to 565. He was said to have a calm personality, handpicked his own set of ministers from all walks of life, effectively ruling under him doing his bidding. They formed a powerful army reclaiming some former localities under the Western Roman Empire and the Mediterranean Sea's surrounding lands. He successfully made the East Roman Empire the most powerful and vast state in Europe until his death. The Byzantium Empire struggled afterward due to debts and a lack of military people to defend their large territory from the Persians and Slavs.

The late 11th century came to the holy wars between the Christians and Muslims lasting from 1095 to 1291. Armies from Germany, France, and Italy aided Emperor Alexius against the Turks. Due to internal conflict and betrayal accusations from the crusaders, the West and East's hostility grew that Constantinople was plundered in 1204.

The Byzantine Empire completely fell on May 29th, 1453, when the Ottoman army entered Highest Sophia turning it later into a mosque.

Religion

Christianity

 Gothic Black Sapphire Stone Cross Pendant Necklace

Constantine or Saint Constantine to the Orthodox Church is revered for what he had contributed to Christianity. Before his conversion, Christians were actively persecuted. Constantine's conversion to Christianity and his creed of eth edict of Milan abolished the persecution of Christians and other religions. He repealed the ban on Christianity in 313AD and tried to unify the Church that had differentiating opinions on the role of religion and Christianity by instituting the Nicene Creed. He built the Holy Sepulcher on the tomb of Christ, protecting and honoring his death as well as preserving the site. He defined himself as the custodian of the Church. He once had a dream of the cross symbol prior to combat. He immediately had all the shields of his men with a cross symbol, believing that it would protect and lead them to victory.

Nicene Creed

 

Also known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, named after the place where it was initially implemented, Nicaea. Amended in 325AD at the first council of Constantinople defining Nicene Christianity.

Nicene Christianity is a collection of Christian doctrines established to resolve the disagreement between Arius and Alexander. The creed acknowledges the same divinity of the father and the son.

Catholic Church

Emperor Theodosius announced Catholicism as the Roman Empire's official religion in 380AD, led by the Pope as the head of the Catholic Church. The Church honored relics, sacred sites, the seven sacraments, and religious observance of the Virgin Mary.

Islam

The Islamic forces were the most significant threat for the Byzantine Empire that by the end of the 6th century, Jerusalem, Syria, Egypt, and North America succumbed under the Islamic militaries.

Byzantine Architecture

Highest Sophia

 
By Arild Vågen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The most famous architecture founded under Justinian is the Hagia Sophia or Highest Sophia. The Church of the holy wisdom was built by Anthemius, and Isidorus commissioned by Justinian to construct the most splendid Church in the world. Designed with complex non-Christian architectural features like the rounded dome and four miranets (spires).

 
By Mark Ahsmann - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Inside shows a massive center designed with a dome and a drum with side windows instead of an oculus—a magnificent structure used as a church, mosque, and a museum. 

Imperial Palace

The Emperor and his family lived in the grand palace of Constantinople, built with a golden throne. A gate was decorated with a large image of the city with a gold figure of Jesus Christ. Beams were made of Ivory with jade-like floors. It was also said to have an automated throne of Solomon.

Byzantine Art

Mosaics

 
By Carole Raddato - CC BY-SA 2.0

Mosaics are made of precious glass, ceramics, and stones called tesserae. The most iconic Byzantine mosaic art is found in San Vitale, Ravenna. The mosaic is seen on the north of the wall showing Justinian, Bishop Maximianus, and his soldiers. Justinian stands at the center holding the bowl for the Eucharist with a halo being divinely ordained. He wore a purple tunic representing an imperial line, with a large circular brooch used to hold the tunic in place.

Byzantine art is not focused on naturalistic and aesthetics but more concentrated on the idea that the art is trying to covey.  This mosaic suggests that the artist is trying to balance the Emperor's importance and the clergy (religion). See that Justinian is positioned higher than the rest and stepping on the person next to him, representing hierarchy. Meanwhile, the bishop is placed in a more forward position, likewise stepping on the man beside him and not Justinian. The yellow or golden background represents divinity, any typical of Byzantine art.

 
By Petar Milošević - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

On the other side is a mosaic of Empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian, who was said to have died before completing the mosaic with cancer. They were created separated, as, by this time, even the empress is not allowed to be in the same space as the men. She wore a tremendous amount of jewelry, including her diadem with pearl pendants, Byzantium pendant earrings, and a collar necklace. Her clothes were adorned with gems with a beautifully embroidered hem. 

Byzantine Icons

Virgin Mary and Child with the saints and angels

 

You can see the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and the saints are painted with halo, the two angels are looking up into the sky. Encaustic in wood using wax as paint. One of the exceptional few that survived the iconoclasm happened imposed by Emperor Leo the third in 726.

Clothing

Byzantium clothing is inspired by Roman fashion as it was technically an extended location of the Roman Empire.

Tunics

Men and women wore tunics made from embroiders or bejeweled silk fabric. Their tunic was also called sheets on. The difference between men's and women's tunic is that men work half-length tunic's, while women wore full-length sheet-on. 

Palla and Stola

Likewise made from colorful fabrics, embroidered and jeweled. A stola is a traditional Roman dress for women, while a palla is a woman's cloak.

Dalmatica

A letter-A shaped tunic with split sides similar to the dalmatica worn by the priest. It seems that the uniform dates back to the Byzantine Era where the Roman Catholic Church was created.

The main difference between Roman clothing versus byzantine clothing is that the Romans are more pared-down, compared to the Byzantines, who wore highly ornate and bejeweled silk fabrics.

Byzantine Jewelry

 
By Jononmac46 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Byzantine jewelry shows influences from numerous countries such as Egypt, Greece, Russia, and Northern Africa combined in one sumptuous and highly ornate jewelry. Artisans were highly skilled, that you will see embossed pieces of gold jewelry commonly accompanied by Christian symbolism. Jewelry was a way to represent one social status in the Byzantine Era. Gold and jewelry were everywhere that Justinian had to decree on a law called Justinian code in 529AD, reserving emeralds, pearls, and rubies for the exclusive use of the Emperor, while allowing everyday folks to wear a gold ring.  Traders, military, and high-ranking officials were presented with fine jewelry chosen by Justinian, made from the imperial workshops.

Materials

Gold

Gold was actively mined around the borders of Constantinople, and silver was mined with it. Gemstones were imported from the East from the countries of India and Persia.

Gemstones

The preferred polished rounded stone, drilled at the center. These were assembled with a gold wire passing through its center looped on both ends securing the gem as well as providing a space to hook on the next gem creating a chain of drilled gemstones forming a necklace, earrings, or bracelets. This design is comparable to a bejeweled version of a rosary.

Gemstones were also cut into cabochons and engraved using traditional techniques of intaglios and cameos. Rubies, sapphires, emeralds, garnets, pearls, amethyst and jade, lapis lazuli designed with a large gem set necklace bracelet rings

Technique

Yellow gold is a very friendly metal to use in jewelry, as it is soft and relatively easy to manipulate manually. As Byzantine jewelry is known to have intricate and heavily decorated designs, the following techniques were utilized by master jewelers fabricating fine pieces of jewelry for the royals and high ranking officials.

Dire struck

Die stuck is a technique using a piece of equipment that mold or stamp a thin sheet of gold into the desired shape by hammering or pressing, resulting in a clear impression.

Repousse

A relief process is used to contour metal sheets into a three-dimensional form without altering their thickness.

Chasing

Chasing is done using cast tools, where refining involves the use of steel punches. These steel punches/tools are:

Punches – These are both used in repousse and chasing technique where steel rods with varying thickness are designed with a pointed or rounded top for decorating and a flat base where the hammer strikes.

Linear – These are used to draw lines in outlining shapes and letters. The tips vary in shape from wide, narrow, or with a slight curve, available in varying sizes.

Modeling Punch – These are used to push out metals into their desired shapes.

Planishing Punch - These are used in refining the relief used along the side of the relief.

Matting Punch – as the term implies, this tool leaves a matte surface, used in hiding shadows and marks left the punching tools as well as in creating contrasting shades.

Setting Punch – This is used in drawing a black line that almost looks like a planishing punch.

Hollow Punch – Leaves rounded bead marks placed near together, similar to the Japanese's fish roe pattern.

Jig Punch – This is used to ensure even spaces for a series of impressions and in creating decorative margins.

Wooden Punch – These are made from hardwood, a more affordable alternative for steel punches.

Chasing Hammer – This is not your regular hammer. A special small hammer, designed to be lightweight yet heavy enough to create marks. Commonly assembled with an apple or hickory wood, coated with linseed oil for added comfort. Made with a hardened face enabling each strike to create tiny marks.

Pitch – This is used in anchoring the metal in place during construction. This requires three ingredients, pitch, binder, and lubricant. The recipe in creating a pitch is 3 portions of the pitch, 2 parts of binder, and 1 portion of lubricant. The pitch is then poured on a shallow box and cast iron pot for added weight.

Lining – This uses a chisel-shaped punch used in outlining and drawing linear patterns in repousse.

Niello

 

As black colored mix in the form of a powder or a paste consisting of sulfur, lead, copper, and silver. Used to highlight engraved or embossed features is best suitable for silver and gold jewelry. It is added on top of the engravings, heated until the mixture flows between the grooves.

The term means black coming from the Latin word neelo. The Romans, typically used as the black accents on tiger-inspired jewelry, popularized niello. It was used to highlight inscriptions and margins in Byzantine arts.

Opus interrasile

 
By Fæ (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0

A type of open work jewelry design widely used during the Byzantine era. Also known as pierced work, this technique was curated in Rome using the same method used in arabesques designs. The intricate design is made by punching holed in metals to create a lattice illusion.

Cloisonné

 

A traditional technique in decorating colored metal jewelry with the use of thin gold wire creating vivid images on jewelry. These are used in fabricating pectoral jewels worn by the Emperor, similar to today's military badge. The Byzantines had mastered the technique of creating Byzantine enamel. They also used glass and gemstones aside from enamel with tiny and thick-walled cloisonné.

The Byzantine era used a gold base with upturned edges; its entire surface is covered with enamel decorated with gold wires soldered on its margin. Another cloisonné technique is when a portion of the plate is hammered and leaving a gold backdrop. The same procedure applies to the first cloisonné method.

Glyptography: Gemstones carving used on ring stones and pendants

 

Finger Ring: Gold, with niello & sapphire intaglio

Intaglio

Intaglio is an ancient jewelry technique where the image is engraved at the back of the gemstone, like an inverted cameo. Intaglios' hollow impression was commonly used on seals later in the 19th century and was totally eliminated when wax seals were ceasing to exist.

Cameo

An iconic jewelry technique from the 3rd century. A cameo is an image carved on a gemstone with a raised relief creating a multidimensional illusion. There were commonly designed with religious themes or the faces of royalty. Originated from the Roman Empire, they initially carved the faces of the Gods using glass and gemstones. The Catholic Church was also fond of cameo jewelry. It was said that Pope Paul the second owned and wore a number of cameo rings. Cameos were also a thing during the renaissance period where the monarchies were also huge fans. From rings, pendants to brooches and tiaras, cameos were all over the place. 

Types of Byzantine Jewelry

Collar

The imperial family exclusively used collars from the Byzantine era. These are decorated with large gem clusters, massive and thick, representing their high status. Men and women both wear these. Collar

Earrings

 
By Jononmac46 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Byzantine earrings were decorated with cabochon gems designed with pendants typically made with rounded gems drilled and inserted with gold wire serving as the chain.

Rings

 
The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Key rings

Key rings are made using Opus interrasile or punched put technique. The golden shank displays an open work lattice, filigree design, with a protruding top design, similar to a key. This accent is not like a regular flat surface. It features a square top connected to the shank with an extended front part.

Byzantine hoop ring

A type of ring for men with a series of cabochon stones, bezel set along the ring's shank.

Marriage ring

It was said that the Romans were the ones who invented wedding rings. However, there is no evidence of these marriage ring worn during the ceremonies. Marriage rings are made of gold with a flat disk top. Its surface is usually engraved with a man and a woman and a cross symbol in between.

Architectural ring

A type of ring that has a high relief surmounted by a large gemstone. Imagine a golden mountain with a temple on top, which is how an architectural ring looks like—bulky and massive compared to a statement or signet ring.

Crown

Based on the mosaic of Justinian, we can describe his crown. Made with a gold frame with three-tier, lined with different gems exclusively used by the royals. These are pearls, rubies, and emeralds.

Empress Theodora wore the same three-tiered crown with two to three strings of pearls hanging on the sides.

Brooch

As depicted on their mosaics, Justinian wore large red coin-shaped pectoral pieces like military medals or a brooch. He also wore a crown

Romanesque Jewelry

Romanesque jewelry serves as a successor of Byzantine jewelry. Its pieces were inspired by Byzantine architecture spreading out to the rest of Europe. Byzantine jewelry styles remained popular until eth 12th century until the fourth crusaders decided to loot Constantinople after feeling betrayed by the then Emperor. As the Empire dies likewise its jewelry style. It was later replaced by the Gothic style. 

Byzantine jewelry, history and art in the middle ages revolved around the Christianity, large architectures, power and luxurious pieces of jewelry. Some say this powerful Empire fell, while some see them as going back to their homeland. In which case, the Byzantine Empire has made their mark in history by leaving grand, remarkable works of art talked about even after centuries. From their history, we learn that a small civilization can grow into the largest Empire of its time when ruled by a great leader, and that same vast and powerful Empire may fall and even cease to exist.

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