The object selected for analysis is Pair of Jeweled Bracelets, 500-700. The object belongs to Byzantine art and probably was made in Constantinople. It is displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In general, the character of this art and the ideas underlying it are entirely opposed to the classical, though as it travels westward it becomes inextricably mixed with the classical, which was itself traveling eastward. Its role in the formation of Byzantine art is very considerable, ranking only after the Greek or idealist and the Syrian or realist tendencies.
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The objects are two gold bracelets decorated with pearl, amethyst, sapphire, glass, quartz, and emerald plasma. The diameter of bracelets is. 3 1/4 in (8.2 cm). The bracelets are well designed and original in form: beads of harmoniously alternating colors are combined in numerous and varied patterns. They display the great technical mastery of the craftsmen in working the typical materials of jewelry at this period. The first bracelet is made up of several small plaques. The plaques decrease in size from the center to the two ends and are made alternately of gold and sapphire, creating a sophisticated chromatic contrast. Each plaque is pierced with two transverse holes to allow threads to be inserted which are then fixed to a triangular gold element at each end.
The second bracelet consists of rows of beads joined at four points, including the two ends, so as to form three sections. On either side of the central section are two groups of three beads in gold, pearl, amethyst, sapphire, glass, quartz, and emerald plasma at either side. The beads of the central section of the bracelet are larger than the others but are arranged in the same rigid sequence. In the center is a tapering, ridged bead of pearls and, sapphire and at either side are three beads (the central one of gold. The bracelet is fastened by a small gold button inserted between two rings placed at either end.
The royal jewelers of Byzantine relied primarily on a few materials to achieve their creations: gold, faience, amethyst, lapis lazuli, carnelian, turquoise, feldspar, and occasionally silver. Intricate inlays were created by cutting laps, carnelian, turquoise, and feldspar into tiny, beautifully shaped pieces, which were then inserted into cells formed by gold strips attached to a gold base plate. The resulting works combine lustrous arrangements of deep, shining colors with superb technical mastery.
Individual elements were also created from single materials such as gold and amethyst, usually embellished with chased or incised decoration. These components were then assembled into finished pieces of jewelry, with the addition of a variety of beads, some minute, also made from semiprecious stones. In rare instances, gold objects with granulation have been found, but such pieces are believed to have been imported into Byzantine from areas in the northern Mediterranean (Obolensky 87).
Taking into account the historical context, it is possible to say that early in the Christian era a rapid elaboration took place, and numerous roof and wall mosaics of large proportions are already to be found in the Roman and early Byzantine art of the third and following centuries. By the fifth century, they have become general, and they remain so in Byzantine lands until the Empire becomes impoverished and patrons are no longer able to sustain the immense expense of furnishing a mosaic decoration for a whole building. The fundamentally religious character of Byzantine art is not reflected in these bracelets (Haldon 76).
Compared to other pieces of jewelry, these bracelets are a typical example of the Byzantine era and art. Finger-rings of gold, silver, copper, and bronze, with engraved inscriptions or with stones or pastes set in the bezel, are common throughout the whole period. Constantinople was the main center, but they were doubtless also produced in every large town. They usually bear monograms or symbols of a religious character, such as fish, or occasionally figures of saints.
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Ear-rings, brooches, and necklaces sometimes show very excellent workmanship, but only very few examples have come down to us since such objects were not usually placed in the tombs as in the pagan world and, being of valuable material, they were probably in most cases melted down at the sack of Constantinople by the crusaders ( 1204). Goldwork, filigree, and especially orfèvrerie cloisonné, where gems or pastes are set in little frames or clasps on the main background, were types of work favored by the rich. Cameos were again essentially a luxury product, and they appear only in the first period. (Obolensky 87).
In general, historians know far less about Byzantine jewelry in early times than we do of pagan, and at a later date, purely ornamental jewelry was much more of a Gothic than Byzantine art. In the Byzantine world, in fact, only objects of a religious character seem to have been universally popular, and these were more in the nature of talismans than adornments, so that each person would only possess a single specimen. Most important of these were pendant crosses of gold, silver, copper, or enamel. They usually open so as to contain the relics of some saint. A famous example is the Beresford Hope cross in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Pl. 39, a). Crucifixes, as in the western world, we’re never made (Whittow 01).
During all this period Constantinople was, without doubt, the most important center of production, for the royal looms were situated there, and the larger stuffs, especially those bearing eagles, are definitely ‘imperial’. But certain other places were noted for the manufacture of textiles, the most important being Cyprus and the towns of Thebes and Corinth in Greece (Phillips 34). It was from these towns that weavers were deported to Sicily in the twelfth century, and they founded a flourishing industry in the island, which was responsible for some first-class work both for Christian and for Islamic patrons.
As time goes on the line drawing and the incised techniques tend to combine, and we see as well an elaboration of the design by the addition of colored glazes, green and brown being most usual, though manganese also occurs. As a result of excavations on Christian sites which have been undertaken since the War, most notably at Constantinople and in Bulgaria, certain new aspects of Byzantine art are being opened up before us. Among the most important of these may be classed the technique of incrustation. The most elaborate example that we know so far is the standing figure of St. Eudoxia of the tenth or eleventh century, now in the Stambul Museum, made up of stones of various colors set in an incised marble slab. Numerous fragments of similar technique came from the same site, the church of St. Mary Panachrantos at Constantinople; others of the ninth or tenth century, which are less elaborate, have appeared at Preslav in Bulgaria.
Haldon, J.F. State, Army and Society in Byzantium. Approaches to Military, Social and Adminitrative History. Aldershot: Variorum, 1005.
Obolensky, D. The Byzantine Commonwealth. Eastern Europe 500-1453. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2001.
Phillips, Clare, Jewelry: From Antiquity of Present. NY: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Whittow, M. The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 600-1025. London: Macmillan, 1996.