The History of Medieval Byzantine Jewelry


Rappers like Lilwayne and Snoop Dogg like to show off their bling, and in a sense, that's what medieval Byzantine jewelry is about, too. Dripping with colorful jewels, pearls, intricate carvings and filigreed gold and silver, this style wasn't just about jewelry, though: gold pieces and jewels were also sewn on clothing and used in military and governmental uniforms. And some of the animals got to wear their own bling.


The Middle Ages is the period of time dating from the 5th to the 15th centuries. The Holy Roman Empire (which actually had almost nothing to do with Rome) held all the power in Europe, and Catholicism was "the" religion. Plague, despair, fear and religious oppression led Europeans into superstitious and mystical thinking. Part of the belief system was that gemstones could cure people's ills and protect them from harm, so talismans were all the rage.

Nobles vs. Common Folk

Gemstone jewelry talismans were worn by royalty, members of the Church and nobility, who also decked their horses out in jewels; even their dogs had gem-encrusted collars (kind of like Paris Hilton's pampered pooch). Though average people could not afford (and due to sumptuary laws were not allowed) to own the same kind of valuable jewelry worn by the nobles, they were not without options: gilded bronze and colored glass were worked into amulets and rings, and colorful glass bracelets were made in large quantities.


Ancient Greek and Roman art and jewelry inspired the art and jewelry of the European Medieval Byzantine period. But because the Church had all of the power during this time, the subjects of Byzantine art were God, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, martyrs and religious icons. This influence carried over into jewelry-making, and sacred icons were common jewelry pieces.


Medieval Byzantine jewelry gets its characteristic colorful properties from gemstones, enameling and niello, a technique that added black accents to recessed areas of metal jewelry. Items worn as talismans were often carved with symbols or inscribed with words of protection. Amber was an important gemstone, and filigree played a significant part in the style of the time. The cross talisman was one of the most common icons produced.

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