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Body Mysteries
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Historical Christian Jewelry

Author: Lena Santos

Archeological findings show that prehistoric men wore some form of adornment on their bodies. The “decorations” were in the form of perforated seashells strung like beads. Before spoken language, prehistoric men already gravitated to “decorating “themselves. The first primitive form of jewelry is a reminder that humans since the start of time had the desire to beauty themselves.

Evolution of Jewelry

The art of jewelry making evolved though the centuries. In a sense, jewelry is any ornamentation or adornment on the body. Jewelry has been used not only for aesthetic reasons but also as an indication of a person’s status in life. A royalty was expected to wear fine and expensive jewelry while a slave was forbidden to wear one. Through the centuries the use and representation of jewelry have changed. Though the type and value of jewelry worn is still an indication of a person’s social strata, the wearing of jewelry can also be indicative of a person’s age, official rank, marital status, social and political affiliation and even religious affinity.

Ancient Egypt Jewelry

The Ancient Egyptian’s religious jewelry was full of symbolism as religious items are wont to be. Lotus, scarab beetle, falcon, serpent and the “eye of the horus” were some of the most widely used religious symbols and therefore jewelry of the Ancient Egyptians. These religious jewelries were made of gold and precious stones. They were not only religious symbols but were ostentatious display of wealth and social status.

Christian Jewelry

Christian jewelry had its true beginnings during the Byzantine period. Though Ptolemaic Egypt is several hundred years older than the European Byzantine period it is worth knowing that the Byzantine Roman rulers were direct descendants of the Ancient Romans who conquered Ptolemaic Egypt.

Byzantine Period

The early Christians were persecuted by the Romans. They were considered outcasts, were made slaves and even fed to lions! Early Christians had to be discreet in practicing their faith for if they were caught, death was sure to follow. In 303 AD, Christianity was tolerated under the Edict of Tolerance co-authored by Constantine and Licinius. By 330 AD Constantine the Great converted to Christianity thus prompting the spread of Christianity to the Roman Empire. The Empire’s seat was transferred to Byzantium renamed Constantinople which is currently Istanbul in Turkey.

Ichtus or Fish Symbol

The Early Christians did not use the cross as a symbol of their faith. The cross was a symbol of shame as it was a means of death for criminals. The Early Christians used the fish sign or Ichtus as representation of their faith. The Ichtus was used to indicate places for worship and became sort of a code to distinguish the Christians from the non-Christians.

When Constantine the Great converted to Christianity, new “Christians” could not do without their fine jewelries. However, since most of the existing jewelries of that era were symbolic of pagan worship, the new Roman converts could not readily wear their jewelries. The obvious solution was to have new gold jewelries crafted as the conversion to Christianity did not stop the new “Christians” from clinging to the belief that symbolical jewelries were akin to “amulets” that give them strength, good luck and a way ward off evil spirits. The practice of Christianity was corrupted with paganism in the form of religious symbols.

The Cross

The cross became the symbol of Christian concept. The cross took the place of pagan symbols and signs that were evident during the pre-Christianization of the Roman Empire. It was believed that the cross was a miraculous symbol that possesses healing strength, ward off the devil, serve as protection and was a way to salvation. What better way to be near the cross than wearing it as a form of jewelry? Other significant Christian symbols of that time were the fish or Ichtus, chi-rho symbol, angels, starbursts and the Greek inscriptions meaning “Jesus Christ King of Kings”

Holy” Images

The use of holy and sacred images later followed. Pagan Rome had images and sculptures of their gods and goddesses. It was only a matter of time before Christianized Rome started populating their altars and churches with images of saints, martyrs and angels. It was important for the ancient believer to wear some form of Christian jewelry as testament to his faith and as protection from evil. The most important Christian jewelry was a cross, especially the one called the Reliquary cross. This particular cross was a made in two parts that was assembled with small hinges allowing them to open like a shell. The cross held either a piece of hair or bone of a saint or martyr and believed to be full of healing power. Of course there is no way now that a believer can acquire a Reliquary cross. Current-day saints and martyrs are very few and far between.

Most ancient Christian jewelry was modest, reflective of Christ’s teaching of humility. Simplistic crosses were made of bronze or lead. However, elaborate and stunning jewelries were worn by ranking priests and bishops as they perform religious rituals. Coins during the Byzantine period had religious images of Jesus Christ and Mary and more often than not, holes are punched through the coins to serve as pendants. Iconoclasm became dominant in jewelry making. It is still a practice in the Roman Catholicism thought there was a point and time when the production of holy images were questioned in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Medieval Age and Renaissance Period

During the later Medieval Age on though the Dark Ages, Christian jewelry remained unassuming and simple. However, when the Byzantine Empire fell and Moslems arrived in Constantinople, iconoclastic traditions came to a halt. The Moslems brought their own traditions in jewelry making. Gold and precious stones were widely used and men wore rings, necklaces, pendants and even diadems.

Europe was starting to see finely crafted and colorful jewelries. The barbaric tribes of Goths, Lombards, Huns, Franks and Vandals all contributed to the art of jewelry-making. The conquering Romans were no more so these lesser tribes had their field day but their work were considered “inferior” by the “classy” Romans.

The Renaissance brought about a new era in the fine art of jewelry making. Each royal household wanted to outdo each other in all terms possible, the procurement of the most elaborate jewelries included. The rich and landed gentries were also fond of elaborate jewelries.

After almost 2,000 years after the first Christian jewelry was “minted”, the Christian world has not stopped in producing and wearing Christian jewelries. The old notions that they do ward off evils and at some level are “miraculous” are still implied.

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