Perhaps the most prominent feature of Byzantine jewellery is the presence of votive items; be it rings or pendants, the religious aspect is consistently present throughout the period. Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire from the 5th century AD onwards, until the conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD. Byzantine jewellery was immensely opulent, having inherited Roman gold working techniques and Greco-Roman polychrome tradition, and was further enriched with gemstones, as the Byzantine jewellers were experts in inlaying, enamel, and intricate metalwork.
Jewellery and Politics
In the Byzantine Empire jewellery played a very important role. It acted as a way to express one’s status and also as a diplomatic tool. In 529 AD, Emperor Justinian decided to regulate the wearing and usage of jewellery through a new set of laws, later to be called the Justinian Code. He explicitly wrote that sapphires, emeralds, and pearls were reserved for the emperor’s use but every free man was entitled to wear a gold ring. This may tell us something about the widespread use and great popularity of jewellery. The advent of Christianity in the Eastern Roman Empire didn’t curtail the previous pagan popularity of jewellery, but made a lasting impact on its forms.
Enkolpion, from the Ancient Greek ἐγκόλπιον, meaning literally “on the chest”, is the term with which we still refer to medallions with icons at the centre worn around the neck by Eastern Orthodox bishops. The custom of wearing devotional objects such as enkolpia was derived from the pagan Roman practice of wearing bullae as a protection against incantations. The use of enkolpia was introduced in the 4th century AD. The Church aimed to purify this usage from superstition by substituting objects venerated by Christians for the previous mythological symbology, although there are many examples of objects that combine more magical pagan beliefs with the new religion of Christianity.
Enkolpion and Relics
Over the course of the centuries, many of these crosses were produced to hold a secondary relic. They might supposedly contain, for example, part of a saint’s clothing, pieces of the True Cross, or hair fragments. The cross was the most popular Christian symbol in Byzantium, but featured alongside the saints and the Theotokos, or Mother of God, as well as more simple Christograms. Some enkolpia were so used by their bearers that any iconography has been reduced to a mere ghost, only identifiable by their writing.
Enkolpia were arguably the most intimate pieces of jewellery one could wear, providing spiritual protection as well as a constant focus for prayer, highlighting the devotion of the wearer and displaying the material culture of piety within the Byzantine Empire.