By Elena Rodríguez and Begoña de la Riva

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the work of the goldsmith occupied an important place in public life, as opposed to its traditional status as inferior to other fields of art such as painting and architecture.

In these two periods, magical and medicinal properties were attributed to gems and minerals. These qualities, cited in ancient texts such as Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and the works of Aristotle, were compiled in so-called “lapidaries” by medieval authors like St. Isidore, St. Albert Magnus — inspired by the writings of Avicenna —, Marbod and Alfonso X the Wise, among others. Some referred to the magical and medical properties of stones, while others explained their astrological connections or religious connotations. They became manuals for the use of stones for therapeutic purposes and circulated among apothecaries, doctors, jewellers and aficionados throughout Europe.

Jewels also provided clues to the wearer’s social and economic status. They could symbolize belonging to a certain family, religious or military group or allude to the moral virtues of the individual in question.

The cultured and sophisticated courtly world of the Renaissance, ruled by the personal tastes of the great patrons, provided the ideal environment for the flourishing of the arts. And in the case of goldsmithing, the most precious materials accessible to man were utilised. In fact, many of the inventories made by the great families who owned marvellous paintings also contained pieces of jewellery that were more valuable than these works. To explain this, we must not only consider the economic value of the materials used but also — and no less importantly — the keen interest developed by the humanist Renaissance society in physical appearance and the accomplishments of noteworthy figures, and the consequent desire to preserve the memory of both of these things. The greater corporality and hardness of the materials used to make medals, for example, made them much more effective in this regard than painting, which is more ephemeral. Pieces of jewellery could evoke, on their own, all the glory of a prince by immortalizing the most important moments of his reign in commemorative medallions that would later be used to adorn his clothing, hats and coiffures. On these pieces of fine metal, the episode was engraved in bas-relief and then decorated with precious stones. Their small size also made them portable, a quality that helped spread the ideological propaganda of their owners as the message they contained could be present in any circumstance.
This close relationship between jewellery and the social or ideological position of the group or individual who owns it would find a fertile breeding ground among the Renaissance elite. In an extremely hierarchical society like that of the 16th century, the monarch’s appearances, whether physical or in the form of artistic images, were understood as representations of the power of State to both his subjects and other powers. When it wasn’t the monarch who was travelling, but rather his ambassadors and diplomats, they were also required to dazzle everyone with their profusion of jewellery as a symbol of the country’s wealth. This was part of their job and in the case of painting, the more skilled the artist at depicting these pieces in great detail as a symbol of inherited authority and privileges, the more revered he was. The case of the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger is paradigmatic in this regard, for not only was he admired for his ability to faithfully reproduce reality, but he also personally designed jewellery for the House of Tudor.

Henry VIII was passionate about jewellery and a regular client of goldsmiths. Renaissance princes were the image of the perfect gentleman and their habits were therefore imitated by the rest of society. As a result, there was such a huge demand for jewellery in Great Britain that many artisans went to the isles in search of work. Many others, however, had fled there to escape religious persecution. In addition, following his rupture with Rome, the King’s treasury was also augmented considerably following the dissolution of many monasteries and the confiscation of ecclesiastical property. Moreover, when royal marriages dissolved the wives’ jewellery collections went into the royal coffers. Princess’ dowries helped local tastes in jewellery transcend borders when they were copied or reinterpreted in other countries. The same occurred with diplomatic missions, which were another way of spreading fashions and models.

This movement of objects and artisans makes it difficult to establish any national stylistic influences, save for the predominant Italian — in turn inspired by a new interest in the forms of Classical Antiquity — or the very attractive, exotic influence of decorative Islamic art, much to the taste of the great Hans Holbein.


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