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Byzantine & Post Byzantine Jewelry - A short history



The Byzantine Era 


The byzantine era begins in 334 AD, when the Roman emperor Constantine I, declares  the ancient city of Byzantium  as the new capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.  Byzantium is named Constantinople (city of Constantine) after his name. Byzantine era comes to its end in 1453, with the Ottoman capture of Constantinople, which is renamed as Istanbul after its fall.

The byzantine era  is characterized by the recognition of Christianity as the official state religion, the preservation of the Roman-Hellenistic traditions  and the increasing predominance of the Greek language.

The term Byzantine art encompass the art of the Byzantine Empire  during this period.

Jewelry, as other art forms during this era,  is characterized by a completely new way of expression, a fruitful synthesis of the previous Hellenic heritage and the spirituality of the Christian religion mixed with elements of the oriental artistic tradition, while the man, according to the Ancient Greek ideals, remains the center of this artistic phase.

During the 3rd and 4th century, jewelry becomes more abstract  and symbolic. At the end of the 4th century, Christian symbols , as crosses, representations of Christ, the virgin Mary and saints begin to appear.  Combining different techniques, new and older ones that revive during that period, artisans try to satisfy a desire for luxury and divine splendor, using a wide range of materials – precious metals and stones when available, semi-precious stones, pearls and glass.

The late 4th to 7th century mark the period of Byzantine worldwide domination. Arts and letters flourish.  Anthropocentrism still characterizes arts, as in painting, where the desire to find ways to express and transmit the divine spirituality through the human form is evident. Jewelry is another art form that reflects the features of this period. Jewelry pieces that have survived  and representations in paintings give us an idea of the luxury and high quality of ornaments.  The use of precious and semi-precious stones becomes very popular and goldsmiths mainly focus on them rather than elaborating techniques for working the gold.

From the 9th century on, art and consequently jewelry is characterized by a “Macedonian renaissance” – a return to the ancient Greek patterns. A particular aspect of this period is the use of enamel as an alternative to stones, while the wealth and  luxury are still expressed by the use of precious stones. Filigree technique and cameos , Christian symbols for  amulets are also widely used.

The 14th century brings a scarcity in the precious materials. During this period, filigree technique reaches perfection level, while silver is used instead of gold.

The amount of the surviving pieces of this whole period is extremely small in relation to the range and duration of the Byzantine Empire - only some “thysavroi” (treasures) had been buried in the earth during times of invasions to be protected.  These pieces manifest the artistic influence and radiance of Byzantium in the Medieval world - influence that went on, even after the dissolution of the Empire.  As a matter of fact, after Constantinople’s fall, many goldsmiths (alongside other artisans and scholars) that fled to West contributed to the Renaissance movement.


Post-Byzantine & Neo-Hellenic Era


After Constantinople’s fall, Hellenism for many centuries lived under Frankish and Ottoman occupations. However, it managed to maintain its cultural and national features by preserving its language and the orthodox Christian religion.

The uninterrupted continuousness of  the Byzantine culture was of primordial importance. It’s this continuousness that offered the fertile soil for the development of new pursuits under the new circumstances, triggered by the beneficial  breeze  of the Renaissance movement that reaches the whole area through Italy and the Frankish occupied Ionian islands.

Post-Byzantine art includes the art produced by Orthodox Christians from the 15th to the 19th century , in Greece, the Balkans and Russian regions mainly.

Jewelry is characterized by a very detailed and elaborated treatment of gold (when it was available), so that a small quantity of it could be transformed into extremely impressive ornaments , using  mainly filigree technique. Silver, pearls and enamel were widely used.

Common patterns during this period are among others : sailing ships, peacocks, swans, birds, the double-headed eagle, crosses, bells, drops.

From the second half of the 18th century art flourishes due to the creative fusion of all parameters that compose its historical perspective : the long Byzantine tradition, inherited into all generations’ consciousness, full of shapes, colours, materials and a preference for the austere splendor, the fertile influence of the Islamic art and its devotion to the natural elements and patterns and the artistic messages coming from the West  influenced by the post-Baroque and Rococo styles.

During this period, known as Neo-Hellenic, there is an abundance of articulated, leaf-shaped accessories in jewelry, that create a pleasant sound and feel with their motion. Single coins or strands of them, connected to metal woven chains become very popular – not only for the ornamental purpose of jewelry, but as an alternative, relatively safe way to transport savings.

From the aesthetic  point of view, the variety of  themes inspired by the natural  and mainly botanical world,  and the high technical skills developed during this era especially in filigree and cast techniques on one hand and the optimism of the colourful glass stones and enamel, on the other hand, give to the materialistic scarcity a true majestic dimension.






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