Articles : Medieval Jewelry
Types of Jewelry and Their Functions
An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry by Harold Newman defines jewelry as any decorative article that is made of metal, gemstones and/or hard organic material of high quality, contrived with artistry or superior craftsmanship, and intended to be worn on a person. Besides such decorative items as necklaces, bracelets, ear-rings, or brooches, here belong also such articles that are functional as well as decorative (for example, cuff links, buckles) and, by extension, also movable jewelry and articles that are sewn on a garment, for example, a hat ornament (enseigne), decorative buttons, and jewelled dress ornaments. In the Middle Ages and in Renaissance jewels, being a part of personal adornment, played an immense role in self-expression and self-representation.
Utilitarian use of pieces of jewelry as a part of dress is one of the natural and most ancient functions of jewelry. Throughout the Middle Ages "functional" jewelry such as belts, buttons, clasps stood in close connection with the development of dress fashion.
In the early Middle Ages, most jewelry was functional. Dress fashions did not allow for a great display of jewelry. The long, high-necked, sleeved under-dress, and shorter-sleeved over-tunic that were worn by both sexes, though they might themselves be richly adorned with embroidery, left little scope for jewels. The belt that was worn by men and married women, and the brooch that fastened the tunic at the neck, were the only jewels that naturally formed a part of dress, though a coronet or other head ornament might also be worn.
However, these few pieces of jewelry that were used were monumental and possessed an imperial and hieratic beauty that made them as stately and as noble as any ornaments designed for church use.
The upper garment was fastened at the breast with a larger and usually round brooch or clasp. From the thirteenth century, double robe clasps came to be used as well, attached to each end of a ribbon holding the front parts of a cloak together. Ecclesiastical morses—clasps to hold the priest’s cope together—also evolved from the type of the traditional cloak-clasp. These were often based on a cruciform or multi-lobed (often quatrefoil) shape.
From the later Middle Ages we have numerous brooches executed in form of personal coats of arms. Fourteenth-century French inventories, for example, include many references to brooches with fleur-de-lis motifs. Such a large lozenge-shaped brooch from the early fourteenth century, once part of French royal regalia, is in the collection of the Louvre. The large golden lily in its centre is decorated both by traditional gems en cabochon and a large table-cut stone—a very early occurrence of the latter technique.
Many brooches were set with antique cameos representing profile portraits.
At the turn of the 14th century luxury began to creep into the French court, and then spread all over Europe. More delicate and richer cloths were used for clothes; dress fashions changed so as to allow more room for decoration: ornamental embroidery or jewelry. Other applied decorations for clothing included motifs beaten on metal dies and sewn onto the textile of the costume.
The growing demand for jewelry multiplied not only the amount of jewels produced but also the types and functions of jewels. Older types of functional jewelry remained, of course, but they also had a tendency to grow into decorative pieces, sometimes forfeiting their immediate practical purpose for the sake of additional embellishment.
Buttons were introduced into fashion when the traditional medieval robe worn by both sexes in the earlier medieval period was replaced by new, fashionable jacquettes for men and tight bodices with short skirts (the jupes) for women. Known already in ancient Greece, buttons did not come into use in Western Europe until thirteenth century. From the mid-fourteenth century on, large, decorative buttons embellished with filigree, enamel, or cameos became a very characteristic feature of male costume, functional in their original purpose but purely decorative in their final form.
Jewels more independent of clothing such as pendants, roundels, necklaces, and rings have been used since Antiquity, but it was the age of the Renaissance which, along with the discovery of the beauty of the human body, first used jewelry in the modern sense: embellishing the body itself, independentlyof dress. It was in the second half of the fifteenth and in the sixteenth century that changes in fashion allowed the use of necklaces, bracelets, and so on to their full advantage.
Other types of headpieces, however, had been worn in earlier periods also. Diadems, often richly decorated with precious stones, had been worn by men and women since Antiquity. A Carolingian source describes Charlemagne as follows: "On festive occasions he walked in robes woven with gold thread, with shoes covered in precious stones, his mantle held together by a golden clasp, on his head a diadem of gold and jewels." Unmarried girls in the 14th – 16th centuries often wore a wreath or chaplet of pearls or precious stones round their heads. These were the precursors of the bridal crown. Chaplets were made up of links, sometimes silver worked in repoussé and surmounted with decorative motifs such as fleur-de-lis. A Hanseatic piece of this type from the first half of the fourteenth century is in Stockholm (Statens Historiska Museum).
Medieval necklaces and neck bands were often quite simple. Strings made up of pearls or beads of rock crystal or glass were very popular and universally worn by the upper classes during the Renaissance. Though uncommon, such necklaces were used earlier as well: strings consisting of 1339 beads (1274 carved from rock crystal, the rest made from glass) dating from the early thirteenth century were found in a clay vessel in the Michailowski monastery in Kiev during archaeological excavations.
Bracelets were similarly made of pearls, beads or metal decorated in various ways.
The habit of wearing earrings originates in Byzantium and did not become widespread in the West until the sixteenth century. Until the thirteenth century, earrings were worn also in the West, but most of these had a characteristically flat, sickle-shape influenced by Byzantine typology. A beautiful example of the type of earrings worn in the West but based on Eastern prototypes is a pair of late tenth-century earrings probably made by a Rhenish workshop (formerly Schlossmuseum, Berlin). These flat, lunette-shaped jewels once belonged to the Empress Gisela, wife of Conrad II.
Other reliquary pendants, such as a northern French pendant from c. 1330-40, had natural, bean-like shapes. The famous Middleham Jewel, set with a large sapphire, has the popular lozenge shape (Yorkshire Museum, York).
A unique mid-fourteenth-century French pendant has a medieval agate cameo of Christ’s face in the centre. The cruciform halo of the Redeemer is formed of cornelians and rock crystal pieces. Many other pendants, frequently of oval shape, enclosed — mostly antique but also medieval — cameos and intaglios in sophisticated settings, richly decorated with gems. Most pendants had a geometric shape (medallions, rosettes, crosses) and had both sides decorated. Many pieces dating from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century were decorated with translucent enamel over an engraved silver design, which often presented religious, moral or allegoric imagery. Pendants were usually worn hanging in their owner’s neck on a chain or a ribbon.
There existed also devotional rings, like a gold brooch with clasped or praying hands from the British Museum. The inscription, AVE I MARIA G (a contracted form of AVE MARIA GRATIA PLENA), echoes the devotional motif of the praying hands.
Finger rings were among the most frequently worn pieces of jewelry. They were made from various metals (gold, silver, bronze) and—especially the cheaper types— were also worn by the lower classes. Rings were placed on both the upper and middle joints of fingers, but until the Renaissance it was unusual to wear more than one or two finger rings.
Rings had many types. The simplest were set with a stone either en cabochon or cut.
Merchants actively used signet rings for making proprietory marks on their merchandise. Also, signet rings could be engraved with various emblems, symbols of crafts, initials.
That the mark made by a signet ring or a ring in itself was a sufficient means of identification, that in in some way a ring represented or "substituted" the person of its owner or endowed someone else with the power and identity of the owner of the ring, becomes clear if one remembers a popular folk motif: a husband sends home a messenger with his personal ring, and the wife is supposed to obey this messenger as though it were her husband.
One more important function of inscriptions and images on rings and other pieces of jewelry has already been mentioned in connection with incised gems. The magic of the Divine name (or names), invocations of saints, cabbalistic formulas were usually placed on rings, cuffs, brooches fastening undergarment or a cloak, and had the same protective function as, according to ethnographers, was that of embroided ornaments: to protect from physical and spiritual harm those places of the human body where it is not protected by dress.
Beside inscriptions on "ordinary" rings, rank, affiliation, loyalty, or affection could be signified by specific forms of rings and other jewels. Some of these rings can be considered as insignia.
One such special type of ring was the lovers’ ring. Its bezel depicted an engraved blessing hand and the ring ended, opposite the bezel, in two joined hands calleda "lovers’ knot". Lovers’ rings were given, as now, as a sign of engagement.
There were also special types of rings for mourners. These were of fine gold, and represented Christ as the Man of Sorrows, his five wounds, and inscribed with related texts, early 16th c. . Such rings were made for mourners, as it turns out from the last will of Sir Edmund Shaa who ordered 16 such rings to be made for his mourners.
A very special class of jewelry is that of insignia: special distinguishing signs to mark their owner’s rank or status.
For example, lawyers with a title of "Sergeants of the Law" and thus eligible for the post of a judge, had special rings engraved with Latin devices. Sir John Fortescue first mentioned such rings in his book, De Laudibus Legum Angliae, in 1463. This tradition was perpetuated in Europe till 1875.
Vassals and servants wore signs of their overlords to express their fidelity and loyalty: rings, brooches, collars, badges.
Members of guilds or knightly orders had their own insignia. Thick gold or silver collars made up of intricate buckles and links marked membership in the various prestigious orders of the late Middle Ages. The pendant on these collars often referred to the name of the order: the collar of the famous Order of the Golden Fleece, for example, had a sheep for a pendant.
The archbishop puts the ring on the king’s finger, symbol of royal dignity, the Catholic faith, and perhaps the marriage that God contracts with his people. Into his right hand the king receives the sceptre and into his left the rod, which represents – this document offers the oldest evidence for this interpretation – "a hand of justice"; and justice, of course, is the most sacred of all royal duties. At the end follow two principal insignia of power: the crown, which the peers are called upon to place on the king’s head, and the throne, on which he is seated, thereby establishing the fullness of his dignity and power.
The set of royal insignia varied depending on the country and the period. In Scandinavian countries, for instance, crown did not come into use until the twelfth century. Scholars suggest that the reason for this was that in Scandinavia, unlike France, a king was not God’s elect but rather a person chosen by the people’s assent. Both in Norway and in France kings had two staffs, or a sceptre and a staff, as indicators of their judicial power and power over the realm. In Britain an orb was an indispensable element to symbolise kingly power and justice, as well as the dominion of the Christian religion over the world. It was placed in the left hand of the Sovereign during the coronation ceremony (in place of a rod in France).
Also ecclesiastical leaders had their symbolic jewels. Pontifical, or papal rings, are first mentioned in a letter by Clement IV in 1265, where they are referred to as signet rings, the "Fisherman’s seals", used in private papal correspondence. According to some researchers, the "Fisherman’s ring" represented Saint Peter sitting in a boat and pulling a fishing net out of the water. We have no examples of such rings preserved. We have, however, another type of pontifical ring, such as the one that belonged to Paul II (1464 - 71). An intaglio on sardonyx depicts two bearded heads, of St. Paul and St. Peter, facing each other, with a processional cross between them. On the reverse of the ring, an inscription PAULUS II PONTIFEX MAXIMUS is engraved in cameo technique. The ceremony of papal consecration, also sometimes called coronation, included the procedure of conferral of papal insignia. The mitra preciosa was placed on the pope’s head, while the bishop’s ring and the Ring of the Fisherman were put on the pope’s finger.