Jewelry and Gems

Jewelry and Gems
   In the early Middle Ages the various barbarian peoples that settled in the remnants of the Western Roman Empire left an important artistic legacy in the metalwork they created. Sophisticated and attractive works in gold and silver were created for both secular and religious purposes. Originally employed for personal adornment, the techniques for creating jewelry and metalwork were later employed to create sacred and liturgical objects. These creations were so highly valued that the fine for the murder of a metalworker was three times that of a peasant and twice that of a blacksmith. The discovery of numerous artifacts at archeological sites like Tournai demonstrates the creativity and talent of these early medieval artisans and the quality of their creations.
   As the various Germanic tribes made contact with the Roman Empire, they brought their own traditions with them, which merged with those of the empire. During the migration period, the barbarian peoples were already forging jewelry and other metalwork. The practice of jewelry-making predates contact between Romans and barbarians, but came to be influenced by contacts with the empire. The Visigoths and Lombards especially were influenced by imperial models of jewelry. Close contact with the empire shaped metalworking patterns, and Visigoths and Lombards imitated Byzantine models and received gifts of jewelry and metalwork from Constantinople. A third people, the Franks, particularly under the Merovingian dynasty, showed less influence from Rome and a greater reflection of traditional Germanic models.
   Early medieval artisans crafted a variety of types of jewelry and metalwork for their noble patrons. There was a wide range of jewelry made of silver and gold and encrusted with precious gems that was worn by the barbarian peoples of early medieval Europe. Rings and earrings were commonly worn, as were buckles, pins, necklaces, bracelets, arm bands, and brooches. The jewelry of gold and silver was often decorated with amethyst, pearls, emeralds, garnets, and other precious stones. Cameos were also popular among the barbarian peoples. One of the most popular pieces of jewelry was the fibula, a type of brooch used to hold a cloak or other article of clothing together. The fibula came in a variety of styles, including the gold disk fibula developed by the Merovingians in the seventh century, which remained an essential part of clothing until the thirteenth century. Fibulae in the shape of birds or eagles, often worn in pairs, constituted another popular design. The various techniques used to create personal jewelry were employed for religious purposes as well, in the creation of chalices, reliquaries, crosses, and related items. The skills used to design gold and gem jewelry were also applied to the creation of book covers for the important manuscripts in monastic or royal libraries.
   Square-headed brooch, from Darenth Park, Dartford, Kent, early Anglo-Saxon, early sixth century (British Museum)
   The jewelry and other metal items used for personal adornment or for religious purposes were created by highly skilled artisans. The designs of the jewelry fell into one of several categories. The patterns of some pieces were simply abstract and geometric in design. Other pieces used an animal pattern in the decoration of the metalwork and jewelry. The animal style is generally classified as Style I or Style II. Style I placed animal parts and compact animals in an abstract or decorative pattern in the metalwork; it is recognized as a northern European style that spread into France in the sixth century. Style II, or the ribbon animal style, originated in Lombard Italy and spread northward. It employed animal figures in elongated, intertwined, continuous, and symmetrical patterns. Also popular was the use of cloisonné, the practice of setting garnets or other jewels or glass in gold compartments or bands that were then soldered to a metal base.
   Many of these practices and styles continued into the Carolingian period. But as the research of Genevra Kornbluth shows, the Carolingian period was also one of innovation, especially in the handling of gemstones. A number of quality gems were produced by Carolingian artists, demonstrating the great variety in Carolingian art; they were produced as a result of royal and noble patronage. Carolingian artists also introduced a new technique in the production of gems. They did not use the carving tools of the Roman and Byzantine Empires; instead, they used a round drill that was fitted with a rotating ball or wheel. The gems they produced were of high quality and unique in that they were not influenced by Roman imperial precedents.
   See also
 ♦ Hubert, Jean, Jean Porcher, and Wolfgang Fritz Volbach. Europe in the Dark Ages. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.
 ♦ Kornbluth, Genevra A. Engraved Gems of the Carolingian Empire. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
 ♦ Lasko, Peter. The Kingdom of the Franks: North-West Europe before Charlemagne. New York: McGraw Hill, 1971.
 ♦ Neese, Lawrence. Justinian to Charlemagne: European Art, 565-787: An Annotated Bibliography. Boston: Hall, 1987.
 ♦ Ross, Marvin, and Philippe Verdier. Arts of the Migration Period in the Walters Art Gallery. Baltimore: Walters Art Gallery, 1961.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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