History of Jewelry Part 3: The Middle Ages|
Then there were the Crusades. From 1095 to 1291, in a series of military campaigns sanctioned by the Pope in the name of Christendom, Western European kings sent their men to fight. The first Crusade was initiated in response to pleas from the Byzantine Emperor for aid against Turkish expansion; the actual mission of the Crusade was to take Jerusalem from the Muslims as a first step in a “holy” war of territory. The first Crusade unleashed a wave of Christian fury within Europe, and Jews were massacred in the wake of the movement of Crusader mobs. Orthodox Christians were treated badly as well, a rising sentiment that culminated in the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. This was not the point of the Fourth Crusade, but it was its consequence and ironically the very capital of Byzantium – the culture for whose protection the Crusades were ostensibly initiated – was destroyed.
Of course the Crusades took a great toll on the world of the time and have influenced politics and territory to this day, but the development and exchange of styles is one of the least complicated of the Crusades’ effects. Warring knights brought back impressions of culture from Syria and Palestine, as well as specimens of gold ornaments and precious stones. Skilled workmen from Asia Minor began moving West, but after the sack of Constantinople, a great divide came between the aesthetics of the Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions and those of the Catholics in the West. Eastern ornamentation became more isolated from the West, and the Westerners began to develop an independent style.
At the beginning of the thirteenth century, a change took place in European aesthetics: what we now know as the Gothic style began to emerge in the West. Artisans began working with forms of slighter and possibly more elegant proportions. Workmanship exhibited great delicacy and detail. The designs we associate with Gothic architecture were to be found in jewelry – pierced openwork patterns resembled the windows of great cathedrals, for example. Jewelers still used enameling, but moved away from previous processes towards basse-taille enameling, a process in which translucent enamel is used on metal, chased, and modeled in shallow relief, producing transparent pictures. Because of the beauty of this process, it influenced even the types of stones that were set into the metalwork. Colored stones were too aggressive companions for the delicate enameling; pearls worked well with the basse-taille, their translucent sheen reflecting the metalwork.
All jewelry of the period was set with cabochon stones. A cabochon is a stone whose surface has been rounded and polished in a convex shape, but which has not been faceted. This manner of cutting stones preserves much of the character of the gem and is still sometimes used today but not as universally as it was in the Middle Ages.
The middle of the thirteenth century in France saw jewels used mostly in the sumptuous ornaments of the clergy, but with the beginning of the fourteenth century, the layman too began to wear enamels and precious stones. French kings tried to outdo one another in their extravagance and the fifteenth century court of dukes at Burgundy was the richest and most luxurious in all of Europe. Garments depicted by Flemish master paintings are thick-sewn with pearls and stones from the East. Even in everyday life, costumes made of magnificent materials were common, as was the practice of setting off the clothing with opulent jewels. In Italy, personal ornament was slightly less indulged because the climate was warmer.