In 306 C.E. Constantine the Great became the emperor of Rome. He ended persecutions of Christians with the Edict of Milan and eventually proclaimed himself a Christian. Twenty-four years later he made Constantinople the official second capital of his Roman Empire. In geographical terms of today's world, his empire stretched south from England to Spain in the west, across to Syria and Egypt in the southeast, and was bordered in the north by the Rhine and Danube Rivers. Constantine's great nemesis in the cast was the Sassanian Dynasty of the Persians.
Constantinople's position as the second capital of the Roman Empire led it to influence all the arts, especially jewelry. Because the emperor accepted gold as offerings in the church, he built more and more churches and monasteries, deco-rating their ceilings with gold mosaics, fashioning silk robes with gold threads, and commissioning sacred ornaments made of gold. To ensure that gold and precious stones were symbols of the Emperor, laws were passed that prohibited the use of pearls, emeralds, and gold by those outside of the imperial household.
The use of purple silk (used in imperial clothing) was also prohibited: punishments for the violation of these rules were fines as steep as one hundred pounds of gold or even death. Gold tableware and even gold chamber pots were prohibited. Exceptions" to these rules were made only for jewelry for members of the emperor's court, women's jewelry, or for coins and dental fillings. For three hundred years, gold was the status symbol of the Byzantines, appearing on jewelry with religious symbols, including, after 450 C.E the crucifix.
This page features a man's golden belt buckle, ornamented with a bird that would have belonged to a member of the imperial court.
This style of lyre-shaped buckle was .quite popular until soon after the end of the seventh century. With Emperor Heraclius, who was crowned emperor in 609 C.E. and again in 610 C.E., men's clothing became tailored and adorned with elaborate jewelry that often featured religious symbols.
During early Byzantine times, both Christians and Jews considered Jerusalem to be the center of the Holy World. Christian motifs were an integral part of early Byzantine jewelry and though Jewish iconography was extremely rare, it did exist. For example, most bread stamps of the time are in bronze and feature Christian motifs for making the holy bread for the Eucharist.
However, the bronze bread stamp on this page features Jewish symbols. The bread stamp served to assert Jewish identity with such symbols as the seven-branched menorah, representing lamps of the Second Temple, which was destroyed by Romans in 70 C.F. The ram's horn, or shofar, is blown at the 'temple to call in the New Year.
The ceremonial palm branch, or lulav, is carried during the processions from Sukkat, the harvest festival that occurs five days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The incense shovel is associated with the -temple's daily activities.
Today most Christians and Jews do not get married at home, but rather in a church or synagogue. During the early Byzantine period, the custom, which was inherited from the Romans, was to be married at home before a portrait of the emperor or an image of a divinity. The opposite page shows a sixth-century gold marriage ring. In contrast to marriage rings from two centuries earlier, when Roman rings were round and showed a profile of a couple who were often holding hands, the newer Christian ring is square and engraved, with a cross between the frontal busts of a couple wearing marriage crowns.
The groom is wearing a toga like garment with a large brooch, called a fibula, at one side, and the bride is wearing pearl earrings and a pearl-encrusted collar.
Though the gold and niello octagonal ring shown on this page is not considered a marriage ring, it does contain wonderful Christian iconography.
The niello inscription says "Because you alone, my God, have inhabited me with Hope." The bezel is engraved with "Lord, because you are God, save me."
In the lower part of the ring, the Virgin Mary is surrounded by the twelve apostles as she looks upward where Christ is ascending into heaven. To create niello, silver, copper and lead, along with fine grains of powder like sulfur or borax, are melted together.
An object is carved and the niello mixture is applied to fill in the background of the engraved object. The completed object is then sanded and smoothed. This technique was also used by the Muslims and eventually raised the level of Islamic jewelry to new heights.Iconic status symbols were an extremely important element of Byzantine jewelry.
A favored motif was the peacock, which wealthy individuals and nobles kept km the grounds of their estates to suggest a paradise like the Garden of Eden. Peacocks were also associated with immortality and renewal since their elaborate tail feathers regenerated each spring. The Byzantine gold earrings with peacocks, above, were popular throughout Byzantium and eventually the entire Islamic world. The earrings consist of a sheet of stamped and cut gold suspended from an arched wire. The engraved details depict peacocks on either side of a stand holding a decorated vase. A border of punched circles surrounded by wire frames the design. Five gold beads are evenly spaced and soldered to the outer edge.
Similar in shape are the Byzantine gold and pearl earrings shown opposite. These earrings were created with a floral motif of vines, leaves, and clusters, cut from sheet gold in a delicate openwork design. As with the peacock earrings, a wire border frames the design with a beaded outer edge.
The most characteristic jewelry technique of the Byzantine period was called opus interrasile, or "pierced work." Introduced around the fourth century C.E., the intricately chiseled gold was often combined with embossing, making the finished gold piece look extremely fluid.
This technique can be seen in two fantastic pieces: an early Byzantine necklace with a cross pendant on and the openwork gold belt. The necklace, with the exception of the small circular elements, is decorated with pierced work. It is composed of sixteen disks of two types: a design based on a hexagonal frame, containing an ornament of six acanthus leaves, and a quatrefoil leaf motif in a rhomboid frame. Acanthus leaf designs became popular in Greece during the fourth century B.C.E. and were integrated into Greek motifs, specifically in Corinthian columns.
Repousse is used to indicate naturalistic details, and seed pearls surround each disk. There are two drop-shaped ornaments set with amethyst that resemble the disks. Eighteen circular elements (not using pierced work) have various color inlays. The cross pendant is composed of emeralds, pearls, and garnets. It is made in five parts, with a square in the center holding a pearl in a pronged claw. The pearls surrounding the outer edge of the cross are larger than those around the chain.
The length of the chain and the size of the pendant indicate that the cross is a pectoral cross, meant to be worn on the center of the chest rather than just below the collarbone. Acanthus leaves are also the predominant motif in the openwork gold belt. Each one of the twenty-four disks made from sheet gold has six acanthus leaves. The disks arc joined by hinges and the belt ends as a three tear-drop pendant.
Another example of a pectoral cross is featured on the opposite page. While the design of the figures Cross is somewhat primitive, the central form of the crucified Christ is decorated with holy figures on the top, bottom, and sides of the cross. The cross is made, of hammered gold sheet with low relief outlines. The back is plain.
The cross on page 95 is set with cabochon rock crystal, suggesting the purity of Christ. The leaf-shaped pendant shown above is double-sided and was reportedly found with the cross
Other trends came into fashion during the Byzantine era, including monograms and gold medallions. To the left is a man's gold bracelet with a monogram that reads: CEMOV, "of Sergius." This monogrammed bracelet features concentric beading.
The side is created from cut segments of heart-shaped leaves, and the bracelet is fastened by a gold screw.
Gold medallions were normally composed of two embossed gold disks attached at the back and encircled by a beaded border. An example of this is the medallion shown at the right. One side shows a standing figure holding a cornucopia, and the other shows a maenad, a consort of Dionysus the Greek god of wine. The center is framed with vegetal scrolls, motifs often associated with immortality Dionysus was a popular jewelry theme during the Parthian Empire and continued to be so throughout early Byzantine times.
The bottom of the silver tray shown above has control marks stamped on it. These marks were used in the early Byzantine era to differentiate-between workshops and to mark the weight and purity of silver.
The front of the platter on the facing page shows a pair of dancers.
The female, or maenad, wears a diadem with a medallion in her hair, as well as hoop earrings. The male, or satyr although his face is wrinkled, his body is athletic has a snake around his right kg. The dynamics of the dance are extraordinary. T Bronze weights that were used to measure gold coins became decorative items from this period.
The above image shows a small weight with a pair of imperial busts. The central figure the archangel, is- flanked by two busts, both wearing elaborate jewelry: crown, earrings, neck-laces, and fibula (cloth fasteners). Greek crosses are above their heads, and the archangel has a star above his halo.
Other popular decorative objects of the period include bronze lamps and stands, like the one shown to the left.
The handle of this lamp is very elaborate, and the cross, which is partially preserved, would have risen from between the two branches. The stand is likewise quite ornate, with tripod feet shaped like a stylized lion's foot. he frame surrounding the scene mimics the appearance of ribbon.
The prestige of the early Byzantine jewelers was so great that their styles and techniques were desired and copied by distant nations.
According to one historian, a seventh century Byzantine necklace was even excavated from a Chinese royal grave. But the Byzantines and the Sassanians were in constant battle, and ultimately the Muslims were the beneficiaries. They were nomadic, highly mobile, and worked to convince nonbelievers to embrace their cause: Eventually they ruled side by side with Christians, but not without conflict that has endured across the centuries.