The conspicuous wearing of jewellery has long broadcast financial and political might. And if you were among the ruling class during the Renaissance, the means of communicating that power was by having a court painter depict you in all your finery, from jewel-encrusted buttons to thick gold chains and an abundance of pearls. Take the portrait of Spanish queen consort Elisabeth of Valois, painted around 1605. As depicted by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, Elisabeth is the entirely bejewelled living embodiment of the Spanish Empire’s strength. The Spanish profited spectacularly from the gold and precious stones they encountered in the Americas in the 1500s, as all ships returning to the continent docked first in their ports. As additional quantities of gems and pearls flooded in from India and the Persian Gulf, the Spanish Habsburg Empire acquired yet more power and riches. As queen, it was Elisabeth’s role to exhibit the prosperity of the empire; as this portrait leaves in little doubt, it was a task in which she triumphed.
IN THIS CIRCA 1605 PORTRAIT BY JUAN PANTOJA DE LA CRUZ, ELISABETH DE VALOIS’S JEWELS
EXHIBIT THE POWER OF THE SPANISH HABSBURG EMPIRE.
Despite her abundant wealth, Elisabeth nimbly treads the line between pious restraint and stately opulence, wearing a subdued black gown but exploiting every fastening as a means to convey her status. Complementing her necklace is a jewelled belt or girdle, which accentuates her waist while hiding the seams of the bodice and skirt. The ribbons tying her sleeves and skirt are tipped with long, golden pearl-set aglets, and even the sable fur thrown over her arm is embellished with a bejeweled head and paws. Intricately set stones are stitched or pinned along the seams of her bodice and could be removed and attached to other garments. Affixing jewels directly onto clothing had become a common technique in the 16th century, when stones were admired more for their depth of colour or hardness rather than their lustre; it wasn’t until the 17th century that the skill of diamond- and gem-cutting really flourished and stones were set to show off their sparkle. The Renaissance jeweller was therefore free to set gems in widely imaginative ways, with an emphasis on narrative and symbolism. Through the jeweller’s skill, bulging pearls were transformed into sea creatures with twisting bodies and golden tails that hung from pendants, while tiny enamelled figures set sail in gem-encrusted galleons pinned to bonnets.
PENDANT DESIGNS BY HANS HOLBEIN FOR JANE SEYMOUR, QUEEN OF ENGLAND.
At the same time, given the Renaissance’s fascination with all things classical, cameos such as the one worn in Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Woman became popular. These depicted people, saints, mythological and allegorical figures that were often meticulously carved or engraved directly onto precious stones. Then as now, each gem had symbolic meaning. Pearls represented purity and femininity; women wore them in ropes draped across their bodices, dripping from their ears, or embroidered onto their clothes – often all at once. They also wound pearls around headbands and plaited them through their hair, though none with quite the bohemian panache of Botticelli’s subject, who is thought to be Genoese beauty Simonetta Vespucci.
1536 PORTRAIT OF JANE SEYMOUR, QUEEN OF ENGLAND, BY HANS HOLBEIN, IN WHICH SHE WEARS JEWELS HE CREATED.
Such was the creativity of jewellery makers in Italy that they were revered as much as painters, sculptors and architects. In Northern Europe, the names of craftsmen were lost to obscurity, but those of jewellery designers tended to be remembered. Hans Holbein the Younger and Albrecht Dürer, for instance, were both celebrated for their exquisite jewellery designs, though the political and religious upheavals of the Reformation sent the two artists on divergent paths. Dürer immersed himself in the puritan doctrine of Martin Luther and renounced the craft, considering jewels an expression of impious vanity. Holbein took an entirely different route, and his production went into overdrive. Having settled in England in 1532, he soon became the leading portraitist of the time – and painter to the court of Henry VIII – his immense talent for designing jewels translating easily into the painted form. Some of Holbein’s surviving jewel drawings are in fact records, rather than designs, and he is known to have meticulously copied jewels to later reuse in paintings. The jewels in his portrait of Jane Seymour, however, match directly with items listed in her inventory, suggesting he had access to her wardrobe for his preparatory sketches. Wearing the jewels Holbein had designed for them, his patrons were thrilled with his meticulous depictions of their clothing and finery. And since Holbein’s portraits hung in the most prominent homes and public spaces, they became ideal platforms to showcase his talents and garner more commissions.
THE BEJEWELLED SIREN IN THIS CIRCA 1475 PORTRAIT BY SANDRO BOTTICELLI IS THOUGHT TO BE SIMONETTA VESPUCCI.
Under the influence of the Reformation, commissions in Northern Europe dwindled, and, like Holbein, many jewellery designers and craftsmen were forced to relocate in search of patrons. They settled in various European courts, eventually transferring their methods to local artisans. As a result, it is often difficult to determine where a particular jewel originated – for instance, a pendant might be commissioned by an Italian patron, designed by a German painter and executed by a Flemish craftsman for a recipient living in France. Fully executed jewels also crossed borders, offered as ambassadorial gifts or included in a dowry, like those Elisabeth of Valois brought from France to her marital home in Spain. Whether magnificent crown jewels, medals or even simple wedding rings, Renaissance gems – much like today’s jewellery – had the power to transcend cultures, conveying sovereignty, political allegiance and eternal dynastic bonds.
Jonquil O’Reilly is an Old Master Paintings specialist at Sotheby’s New York.
Lead image: A major feature of a Chanel Fall 2016 Ready-to-Wear ensemble, roped pearls have graced women's attires for centuries. © firstVIEW 2016