The Glory of Byzantium’s Jewelry Riches

A recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City celebrated the arts of the second golden age of the Byzantine era. Among the treasures were examples of jewelry spanning every region of the Byzantine empire

To students of jewelry history, the Byzantine era is, well, byzantine. But a recent exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art succeeded at the daunting task of finding jewelry from the second of two golden eras of that 1,000-year empire.

What made the task of compiling “The Glory of Byzantium” exhibit so challenging was the time period and geography involved. The Byzantine empire stretched from 324 A.D., when the capital of the Roman empire moved from Rome to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), to 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered the capital.

During the first few centuries, the empire’s arts and culture reflected earlier classical Roman or Greek themes, and the jewelry naturally followed suit. However, during a second golden age, from 843 to 1262, the empire’s influence expanded north into modern day Russia, Georgia and the Ukraine; south to Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Syria; and northwest into eastern European nations such as Bulgaria and Romania.

The arts and culture of the empire soon took on a multiethnic flavor. Christian and Islamic religious influences took hold, as did the arts of the Latin west and the Islamic Middle East. Byzantine jewelry reflected all these influences, while still using some earlier Greek and Roman motifs in subtle and interesting ways.

The jewelry is complex and rich in diversity. The exhibit’s curators compiled a stunning display that covers all the arts of that middle period, including jewelry and precious objects. Pictured are some representative examples.