The Met

Jewelry as Testament: Papal Treasures at the Met

By Sotheby's

Installation view: The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination."

The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” recently received its one millionth visitor, breaking attendance records for both The Met and its Costume Institute in only three months. The opulent and groundbreaking show, curated by Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute, is set across 25 galleries, from the Fifth Avenue location's cathedral-like galleries for medieval art to its modern Anna Wintour Costume Center. The show is also presented at the Met Cloisters in northern Manhattan, where the contextualization of habit-like gowns and Byzantine jewelry amidst 13th century stone cloisters is altogether transporting.

Highlights at both locations include shimmering, embroidered shifts inspired by Byzantine mosaics from the house of Dolce & Gabbana, stark black and white ensembles recalling the Sound of Music by Thom Browne, and showstopping wedding gowns with a touch of punk flare from the ever-provocative Christian Lacroix. The creativity on display is astounding, and its installation - juxtaposed and in dialogue with Early Renaissance altars, seated Madonnas, and, most notably, a group of papal robes and accessories on loan for the first time in history from the collection of the Vatican and Holy See - is something few museums in the world can achieve at such a high level of quality.

While the interpretive, fantastical clothing ensembles of Heavenly Bodies have garnered the most attention in recent months, it is the exhibition's less sartorial, historic pieces that deserve a closer look. Indeed, the exhibition's presentation of jewelry and accessories is a show in and of itself. Throughout the galleries, jewel-encrusted reliquaries, ivory book covers, diamond crosses, and sapphire-covered pectoral clasps are just some of the sacred treasures adding an air of papal prestige to the Met this season. We take a closer look at the small treasures and their historic function.

Heavenly Bodies, Embellished:

Must-See Jewelry Highlights

Clasp of Leo XIII

Francisco Marzo, Clasp of Leo XIII, 1887, gold, diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds.

Queen regent of Spain, Maria Cristina, commissioned this eye-catching clasp in 1887 as a gift to Leo XIII to celebrate his 50th anniversary of priesthood. The Spanish goldsmith, Francisco Marzo, designed and crafted the striking piece. At the center, Leo XIII’s name is composed of sapphires. Surrounding the prominent signature are nearly 700 diamonds of varying sizes. At the head of the clasp, representations of a tiara and two keys fashioned from diamonds represent the papal insignia of the time. The crossed keys symbolize the keys of Saint Peter, keeper of the gates of heaven.

Reliquary Cross

Abbey of Grandmont, Reliquary Cross, ca. 1180, rock crystal, and glass cabochons, wood core.

Created in the 12th century in Limoges, France, this cross contains reliquary fragments found at sacred sites throughout the Holy Land. At the time of the reliquary’s creation, affluent individuals and religious figures would frequently embark on pilgrimages to the place of Jesus’s birth and crucifixion. Upon their return, such reliquaries were commissioned to hold the scavenged treasures of their pilgrimages. In this unique work, both glass cabochons and relics are embedded into the gilded cross. A remnant of wood, posited to be from the cross of Jesus's crucifixion, can be found above the cross section.

Pectoral Cross of Leo XIII

Agostino Bori, Pectoral Cross of Leo XIII, late 19th century, gold and aquamarine glass paste.

Originally belonging to Pope Leo XIII, this jeweled cross is carved in gold and adorned with gleaming aquamarine glass paste. Created by the goldsmith Agostino Bori, the 19th century cross was later gifted to the bishop of Mantua, Monsignor Giuseppe Sarto. Being the son of a village postman, the bishop’s childhood was marked by poverty. The gesture seemed to be prophetic, as Bishop Sarto was subsequently elected as pope in 1903, inaugurated with the name Pius X. In his role as leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius X wore the cross to several pontifical ceremonies, before eventually passing it down to his sister Maria Sarto, whose life was humble despite the prestige of her brother’s papacy.

Book Covers with Ivory Plaque and Figures

Convent of Santa Cruz de la Serós, Book Covers with Ivory Plaque and Figures, ca. 1085, gilded silver on wood backing, inset with sapphire, glass, and crystal.

Two Byzantine ivory carvings are used as focal points of these gilded book covers, created in northern Spain at the end of the 11th century. Each scene portrays a crucifixion narrative in which Jesus's mother, the Virgin Mary, and John the Evangelist, flank the crucified Jesus. Sapphires, crystals, and cloisonné enamel surround the ivory figures, as well as carved vine motifs.

Clasp of Pius IX

Clasp of Pius IX, 1871, gilt silver, turquoise enamel, diamonds, emeralds, and semiprecious stones.

Standing out amid a dozen bejeweled clasps in the Anna Wintour Costume Center is this late 19th century papal clasp from the collection of the Vatican. At center, a turquoise enamel globe suggests the heavens, with a scattering of diamond stars. Surrounding the globe are figures: God at the top, two angels at the side, and three cherubs below. The angels hold scrolls that announce, “without original sin” and “faith be not lacking” in Latin. Pius IX was gifted the clasp from the Prima Primaria Congregation on the 25th anniversary of his consecration as pope. The composition is placed within a scalloped shell motif encrusted with rubies and emeralds. This is the first time this clasp has left the Vatican; it's presentation at the Met marks yet another historic chapter in the life of the object.

Rosary Terminal Bead with Lovers and Death’s Head

At Left: Rosary Terminal Bead with Lovers and Death’s Head, ca. 1500-1525, ivory with emerald pendant, gilded metal mount.

Until death do us part? This opulent rosary bead, carved in ivory in the vicinity of northern France at the beginning of the 16th century, depicts two lovers in a close embrace. But not all is as pleasant as it seems. Between the two lovers, a skull symbolizes their impending deaths. The carving is an example of a memento mori, or reminder of death in Latin, as the terminal bead was used as a prayer guide to reflect on the ephemeral quality of life.

Clasp of Leo XIII

Clasp of Leo XIII, 1888, gilt silver, gold, pearls, and diamonds.

As with the diamond clasp above, this papal clasp was offered as a gift to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Leo XIII's priesthood. Commissioned by the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine, a Catholic mendicant religious order that follows the Rule of St. Augustine of Hippo, the intricate work features an ornate, gold body and three pine cone motifs which form a trilogy signifying the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit. Each pine cone is decorated with strings of pearls. At the center of the trinity, Leo XIII’s name is written in diamonds.

Clasp of Benedict XIII

Clasp of Benedict XIII, 1729, gold, gilt silver, blue enamel, emeralds, rubies, and semiprecious stones.

At the center of this work, on loan from the Vatican, the suggestion of gilded rays of light encircle a depiction of the Holy Spirit, represented in this instance as a golden dove. The clasp features engravings reflective of Pope Benedict XIII’s biography including a familial coat of arms and the likeness of Saint Dominic; Benedict XIII was once a Dominican priest.


Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York until October 8, 2018.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's