LATE ANGLO-SAXON JEWELLERY (SEVENTH TO NINTH CENTURY): Christian Jewels

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After the landing of St. Augustine in 597 and the baptism of Ethelbert, King of Kent, the conversion of the upper classes in England appears to have been rapid, and by the third decade of the seventh century the greater part of the country had accepted Christianity.

Old customs, however, with regard to burial and the adornment of the corpse, were slow in disappearing, and even as late as the time of Charlemagne (742-814) we hear of orders being issued that the Saxons were no longer to follow the pagan mode of burial, but to inter their dead in consecrated ground.

The general abandonment of the custom of burying ornaments with the dead is responsible for the small number of the later Anglo-Saxon jewels now extant. But the few examples surviving from the period which terminated at the Norman Conquest are of exceptional merit.

There can be no doubt that the introduction of Christianity produced a profound change in the character of personal ornaments. New forms and methods, due to closer association with the Continent, were introduced into the goldsmith’s productions by the Church, which at the same time fostered the splendid traditions of the older English jewelers.

The characteristic of the finest pieces of Saxon jewelry of the Christian period is their ornamentation by means of cloisonne enamel. It has already been noticed that Anglo-Saxon jewels were decorated with gold wires, some twisted or beaded, or rolled up and plaited together, and soldered on to a thin gold plate ; while others were flattened into strips forming compartments, which were filled with pieces of garnet or colored glass cut to shape.

When the spaces between strips, so disposed as to make up the outlines of figures or ornament, were filled with enamel paste and fired, the result was enamel of the cloisonne type. This cloisonne enamel naturally resulted as soon as the Saxon jeweler had mastered the art of fusing vitreous colors upon metal.

From whom did he learn this art ? Was enameling introduced by the followers of Augustine from Rome or Byzantium, or did the Irish missionaries bring afresh into England an art of which the Celts were past masters?

The question is one that cannot be answered ; but it is not without interest to note the great influence of the Irish craftsmen on the art productions of the time. A remarkable development of goldsmith’s work in Ireland succeeded the introduction of Christianity.

Enamel was largely employed in the decoration of early objects of ecclesiastical metalwork, and attained perfection in the translucent cloisonne: enamel of the Tara brooch and the Ardagh chalice.

The far-reaching influence and extraordinary activity of the Irish missionaries, many of them no doubt skilled goldsmiths, are well known. ” Irish missionaries labored among the Picts of the Highlands and among the Frisians of the northern seas.

An Irish missionary, Columban, founded monasteries in Burgundy and the Apennines. The canton of St. Gall still commemorates in its name another Irish missionary.'” The processes of their artistic metalwork must have made themselves felt wherever these Irish missionaries penetrated.

The wandering scholars and artists of Ireland left both their books and their art-apprentices in England, as they had left them along the Rhine and the Danube. At Glastonbury, St. Dunstan, the patron saint of English smiths, lingered as a youth among the books with which the Irish missionaries had endowed the monastery, and associated doubtless with the monastic craftsmen who had learned the arts of their Celtic predecessors.

Every priest was trained in some handicraft, and many monks became excellent goldsmiths. St. Dunstan (924-988), like St. Eloi of France (588-659), at once a goldsmith and a royal minister, himself worked in the precious metals and he appears to have been a jeweler as well, for we find in old inventories, entries of finger rings described as the productions of the great prelate.

In the Wardrobe Account of Edward I, in 1299 is ” Unus anulus auri cum saphiro qui fuit de fabrica Sancti Dunstani ut credebatur”; and in the inventory of that mediaeval fop, Piers Gaveston, 1313 is: ” Un anel d’or, a un saphir, lequel seint Dunstan forga de ses mayns.”

The artistic traditions of the old Saxon jewelers became almost the sole property of the clergy; and the Venerable Bede, writing at the commencement of the eighth century, alluding to the monastic jewelers of his day, describes how “a skilled gold-worker, wishing to do some admirable work, collects, wherever he can, remarkable and precious stones to be placed among the gold and silver, as well to show his skill as for the beauty of the work.”

The description of these stones as “chiefly of a ruddy or aerial color” would seem to indicate that garnets and turquoises had not even then been entirely supplanted by enamels. Certain it is that the earlier Christian jewels retained for a time the technique of those of pagan Saxondom.

For example, the gold cross of St. Cuthbert, discovered in his tomb in Durham Cathedral in 1827 and now preserved in the Cathedral Library, is inlaid with garnets in the cloisonne manner. The internecine wars of the Saxons and the early-ravages of the Norsemen, from which England was delivered by Alfred during the ninth century have left the country little repose for the cultivation of the jeweler’s art.

Yet, in spite of the unhappy condition of England, the art, judging from inscribed jewels noticed hereafter, was still practiced, and needed only some presiding genius to awaken it to new life. There is little reason to doubt that jewelry was among the foremost of the arts which Alfred is known to have encouraged; indeed, his interest in such work is asserted by a well-sustained tradition.

And if the world-famed jewel to be described is, as seems probable, to be associated with Alfred of Wessex, he must then have personally supervised the production of other contemporary jewels. The Alfred jewel, the finest example left of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship, and the most famous of all English jewels, is preserved in the Ash-molean Museum at Oxford.

It was found in 1693 at Newton (or Petherton) Park, three miles from the Isle of Athelney, Somerset, whither Alfred had fled from the Danes in the year 878, and was presented to the museum in 1718 by Thomas Palmer, grandson of Colonel Nathaniel Palmer, near whose estate it was found. The jewel is 2 inches long, i- wide, and half an inch in thickness.

It somewhat resembles a battledore in shape; it is flat front and back, while the other parts of its surface are rounded. The obverse is of rock crystal, beneath which is a plaque of semi-transparent cloisonne enamel of blue, white, green, and brown, representing the figure of a man. Upon the reverse, is an engraved gold plate. The smaller end of the THE ALFRED JEWEL oval is prolonged into the form of a boar’s head, from the snout of which projects a hollow socket. Around the sloping sides of the jewel, from left to right, runs the legend aelfred mec heht gewyrcan {Alfred ordered me to be made), in gold letters, exquisitely chiseled in openwork upon the band which encircles the enamel and its crystal covering.

The whole of the gold work is beautifully executed in filigree and granulation. There is considerable doubt as to the actual use of this precious jewel. Professor Earle has placed it among the category of personal ornaments, and holds that it was executed under the personal supervision of Alfred the Great, and formed the central ornament of his helmet or crown. The enameled figure is probably intended for that of Christ, represented, as is frequently done in early ecclesiastical art, holding two scepters.

The gold setting of the jewel, it is generally agreed, was made in England, and in the opinion of many the enamel is of native origin.- Somewhat similar in shape to the Alfred jewel, and probably employed for the same purpose, is a jewel known as the Minster Lovel jewel, which was found half a century ago in a village of that name near Oxford, and is now preserved in the Ashmolean Museum. It is circular above, with a projecting socket below. The upper part is ornamented with a cross-shaped design in cloisonne enamel.

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Author: fairydew1

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