Byzantine Bling: Quick Bite

Today on Museum Quick Bites we’re winding back the clock to the 6th century and taking a closer look at Byzantine bling. This stunning Byzantine necklace was recently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Byzantine Necklace (6th century or later), Art Institute of Chicago, photo by cjverb (2019)

Handcrafted from gold wire, double-eye head pins have been linked together to support an intricate pattern of amethysts, pearls, and green glass beads. A generous hook supported by two coin-like filigree keeps this splashy display of gems intact.

Colorful and ornate this exquisite necklace has withstood the test of time and provides us a glimpse of Byzantine fashion. The design is classic and not unlike necklaces we see today. What do you think? Would you wear this beauty around your neck?

Gilded Bronze Head of Emperor Constantine I (c330-337), Musei Capitolini, photo by cjverb (2019)

The Byzantine Empire (330 to 1453) was established in 330 CE when Constantine I (c280 to 337) moved the capital of the Roman Empire east to the city of Byzantium. He promptly renamed the metropolis Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). Strategically located between the Black and Aegean Seas, Constantine’s goal was to protect the Roman Empire’s seat of government and establish a solely Christian society. When Rome fell in 476 the western portion of the empire collapsed. What remained was the Eastern Roman Empire, subsequently referred to by historians as the Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantine Empire was known for its flashy displays of wealth. Colorful glass and gold-infused mosaics decorate their churches and citizens adorned themselves in lovely layers of jewelry, from elaborate diadems to gem-studded bangles to brilliant gold buckles and belts. Like many cultures, Byzantine jewelry was not only an accessory, it was a portable asset, signified status, and could also serve as an amulet to protect against evil spirits.

In the 6th century, Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (483-565) stated gems were only allowed “for the splendor and adornment of the sovereign”. However, he made an exception for jewelry “usually worn by women.” Mosaics located inside the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy offer a peek at Byzantine jewelry popular during the 6th century when our necklace, featured above, was created.

Emperor Justinian I, Basilica di San Vitale (c547), Photo by Roger Culos, Wikimedia Commons
Empress Theodora (c547) Basilica di San Vitale, Photo by Roger Culos, Wikimedia Commons

Tricked out in their royal finery, Justinian I and his wife Theodora (c497-548) are flanked by their courtiers. Note the military men (holding shield and spears) are wearing bulky necklaces. No doubt bling sanctioned by the emperor.

If you’d like to view more colorful examples of Byzantine jewelry, click on this Byzantine jewelry link, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To learn more about the empire, click on this Byzantine Empire link, courtesy of Britannica.

Next week, we’ll venture into the Basilica di San Vitale and take a closer look at Byzantine mosaics and learn more about the life of Empress Theodora. Until then, be safe, be kind and take care 🙂

Cover photo of Basilica di San Vitale mosaic of Empress Theodora’s courtiers (cropped) by Roger Culos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Art Institute of Chicago: Byzantine Necklace (5th Century)

Britannica: Eastern Orthodoxy

Britannica: Byzantine Empire

Britannica: Byzantine Greek Language

Khan Academy: Comparing Roman and Byzantine Empires

Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Byzantine

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Byzantine Gold, Amethysts, Glass Beads Necklace (6th–7th  Century)

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Jeweled Bracelet (6th century)

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Jewelry, Byzantium and Islam Exhibition Blog

Walters Art Museum: Byzantine Gold, Pearl and Semi-Precious Stones Earrings (c600)

Wikimedia Commons

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