Medieval Europe + Byzantine
by Dr. Alicia Walker
Bracelet, early Byzantine, 500–700, Constantinople (?), gold, silver, pearl, amethyst, sapphire, opal, glass, quartz, and emerald plasma, c. 4 x 8 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Today, works of Byzantine art are typically encountered in museum settings, divorced from their original contexts of use. For this reason, it is often easy to forget that these objects once participated actively in Byzantine life. This is especially true of things worn on the body. Earrings, bracelets, belts, necklaces, and garments were meant to be seen in motion, changing their appearance as they refracted light, as they were concealed and revealed on the body, and as their wearers—both women and men—engaged in every day and ritual practices. The function of clothing and jewelry was not simply utilitarian: wearable art in Byzantium communicated complex messages about social identity, religious beliefs, and concerns about physical and spiritual well-being.
Left to right: Crescent Earring, 10th century, gold with pearls, 7.2 x 5.7 cm (© Dumbarton Oaks); Bracelet, c. 600, gold, 4.3 x 6.9 x 6.4 cm (photo: The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); Bracelet with Birds and Geometric Patterns, 1100–1400, glass with silver stain, diam. 7.5 x 1.4 x 0.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Byzantine bling: Materials, techniques, and aesthetics of adornment
The Byzantines inherited a well-developed tradition of physical adornment from ancient societies, including technologies for cultivating plants and animals that yielded fibers for weaving textiles; sourcing and working natural materials like metals, pearls, and gems; and engineering the production of synthetic materials like glass and
. Indeed, some objects combined precious natural materials with those that were human made, like an early Byzantine gold bracelet at The Metropolitan Museum of Art set with pearls, sapphires, emeralds, and amethysts, but also glass.
Bracelet, early Byzantine, 500–700, Constantinople (?), gold, silver, pearl, amethyst, sapphire, opal, glass, quartz, and emerald plasma, c. 4 x 8 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Pearls were harvested from the sea and were typically small in size. They were often strung and applied as framing elements on clothing and jewelry. Precious gems—such as sapphires, amethysts, and emeralds—were imported from throughout medieval Afro-Eurasia and were prized for their color and shape. The Byzantines did not practice
. Instead, gems were smoothed and polished to enhance their color and luminosity.
Left: Engraved intaglio Seal with the Crucifixion, 9th–11th century, rock crystal, 2 x 1.8 x 2.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art); right: Carved Cameo with Saint George, 11th–12th century, bloodstone, 4.1 x 2.8 x 1 (photo: The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Gems and semi-precious stones were also
and carved in relief, as seen with this engraved intaglio seal with the Crucifixion and this carved cameo with Saint George. Natural gems of comparable size and shape were especially prized.
Left to right: Gold Earrings with Pearls and Sapphires, 6th–7th century, 6.1 x 2.4 x 1.2 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art); Pair of Bracelets, c. 400, gold, c. 7 x 6 x 4.5 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art); Necklace with Pearls, Emerald Plasma, and Sapphires, early 5th century, gold and gems, 37 cm (© Dumbarton Oaks)
Earrings or bracelets of matching design or necklaces with regular, repeating elements imposed symmetry on the wearer’s body. The Byzantines celebrated well-proportioned and balanced physical features, and objects of adornment that enhanced these qualities were especially desirable. 
Pair of Basket Earrings, Middle Byzantine, 10th–11th century, gold, c. 3 x 2 x 2 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
This portrait of the eleventh-century empress Eirene projects Byzantine ideals of symmetry and proportion in physical appearance. She is depicted with a round face, bifurcated by an aquiline nose and delicately balanced by bow-shaped lips. Her arched brows, almond-shaped eyes, rosy cheeks, and finely braided hair are arranged evenly on each side. Her gem encrusted crown and collar, pearl earrings, and elaborately adorned garment enhance the impression of beautiful balance. Portrait of Empress Irene, middle Byzantine, 1118, mosaic, Church of Hagia Sophia, Constantinople (Istanbul) (photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC0)
More refined examples of Byzantine jewelry often incorporated gold and silver, which were manipulated in complex ways such that these objects conveyed their value in terms of both materials and craftsmanship. This delicate pair of tenth- or eleventh-century gold basket earrings, for instance, concentrate in their small forms several demanding techniques of metalworking, including
(wirework). Through their mastery of these and other techniques, Byzantine artisans created earrings, rings, necklaces, belts, and bracelets of astounding fineness and intricacy.
Marriage Belt, Byzantine, late 6th–early 7th century, gold, 4.8 x 75.5 cm (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Gold and Niello Bracelet with a monogram, 5th–6th century, Syria (?), gold and niello, c. 6 x 6 x 2.25 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Metal jewelry was also
and subsequently decorated by means of engraving,
. Byzantine metalworkers were especially skilled in the refined form of punching known as opus interrasile (“work [shaped] between”), which involved delicately piercing metal sheets to create fine patterns.
was used to highlight patterns and inscriptions, as in this Early Byzantine bracelet (above) engraved with the owner’s
and this middle Byzantine ring (below) engraved around the band with
and on the
with the owner’s name and court title along with a brief evocation for divine aid, "Lord help Leontius, Patrician and Count of imperial Opsikion guarded by God."
Ring of Leontios, Middle Byzantine, c. 1000, gold and niello, c. 2 × 2 × 2 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Byzantines also made jewelry in less precious materials, including ceramic, glass, and base metals like bronze and copper.
Left: belt-buckle, 7th century, bronze (photo: The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); right: belt-buckle, 7th century, bronze (photo: The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Some of these down-market items of personal adornment imitate objects in finer materials, for example, belt buckles and fibulae made of gilt-copper or gilt-bronze were burnished to appear like gold.
Fibula, Roman-Byzantine, second half 4th century C.E., gilt copper alloy with niello inlay, c. 9 x 6 x 3 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The combination of natural and human-made materials is also found in these less luxurious items of adornment; early Byzantine necklaces from Egypt pair amber or coral and glass.
Left to right: beads (necklace), 5th–6th century, glass and bronze (photo: The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); beads (necklace), 5th–6th century, glass and amber (photo: The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); String of Beads, 4th–7th century, glass and coral (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Getting dressed in Byzantium: Garment types and decoration
Tunic, Coptic, 4th–7th century, plain weave in undyed linen; self-bands, 136 × 104 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The primary item of clothing in the early Byzantine era was the tunic, a sheath-like garment of simple design. Men, women, and children of all social classes wore tunics, which were initially produced in untailored form that could be adjusted to shape on the body with belts, pins, and tucks. Wool and flax (linen) were common materials for clothing of all social classes, while garments of the elite could be produced in imported materials like cotton and silk. Individuals at all levels of society embellished their clothing with decorations. More elaborate garments depict recognizable iconographic motifs, for example, an early Byzantine tunic from Egypt (below) decorated with vignettes of Dionysus, the pagan god of wine, and his followers. Although Byzantine society was increasingly Christianized by the fifth to sixth century when this tunic was created, Greco-Roman literature continued to be a mainstay of the Byzantine educational system until the fifteenth century, and pagan mythology was well-known, especially among the cultured elite. Images of Dionysus were especially popular in clothing and domestic textiles, perhaps because he was associated with the pleasures of drinking, dancing, and merry making.
Tunic with Dionysian Ornament, probably fifth century, said to be from Panopolis (Akhmim, Egypt), linen and wool, c. 183 x 135 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Finished garments from other cultures were also imported to Byzantium. In the early Byzantine period, Sasanian-style fitted garments were highly valued luxury objects because they were usually fabricated from precious silken fabrics and ornamented with intricate, beautiful designs. They may have also been appreciated for their tailored cut and the form-fitting silhouette it produced. Their fitted forms distinguished them clearly from the comparatively shapeless tunics of Roman-Byzantine fashion. The emulation of foreign styles was not always condoned by Byzantine authorities. In the sixth century, the court historian Procopius criticized young men of the capital for dressing and arranging their hair in ”Persian” (i.e., Sasanian) and “
Persian-Style Riding Coat, 443–637, Plain weave in blue-green sheep’s wool and cashmere; applied borders in tablet weave of polychrome wool and undyed linen; patches of fabric in plain weave of undyed linen to reinforce armpits and hemline, 120 x 252 cm (photo: Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DE)
Byzantine clothing is best preserved in the burials of late antique Egypt, where the dry climate and relatively limited degree of modern urbanization have left large numbers of late antique funerary sites and their grave goods intact. Finds from these sites show that by the fifth century, clothing of even moderately wealthy individuals adopted elaborate decorations. In-woven designs were typically rendered in wool, which took dye more easily than flax (linen). Symmetry of the body was enhanced by tunic decorations that defined the shoulders, the vertical stretch of the chest, and the length of the arms.
Round Insert from a Coptic Tunic or Shawl, 7th century, linen and wool (the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Bracelet with Grapevine Pattern, early Byzantine, possibly Constantinople, late 6th–early 7th century, gold, c. 6.5 x 3.5 x 6 cm, 72g (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
In the early Byzantine era, clothing and jewelry were decorated with a wide range of motifs. Some were primarily ornamental, such as geometric or vegetal designs. In the early centuries of Christianity, before the religion achieved widespread social and political endorsement, devotees risked persecution. Motifs that were polysemous (communicated multiple meanings) allowed the earliest Christians to avoid overt expression of their religious affiliation: only the initiated would recognize the Christian identity that these motifs conveyed. Many of these motifs continued in popularity even after Christianity became the almost exclusive religion of the Byzantine Empire. For instance, the grapevines on a sixth- or seventh-century gold bracelet (above) could be general signs of natural abundance and the good life, even an evocation of the pagan god of wine, Dionysus, or they could be understood as Christian signs that evoked Christ’s sacrifice through reference to the Eucharistic wine that was mystically transubstantiated into his blood during the Christian liturgy. Similarly, the doves in a fifth-century opus interrasile bracelet (below) could recall the simple pleasures of nature, or they could operate as symbols for the Holy Spirit (one of the three elements of the Christian Trinity—God the Father, God the Son [Christ], and God the Holy Spirit).
Bracelet, Roman-Byzantine, Rome (?), c. 400, gold, c. 7 x 6 x 5 cm, 162g, (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Distinctly Christian iconography became prominent by the fifth century. Crosses and images of holy people served both to identify the wearer as Christian and to facilitate prayer and protection.
Gold Signet Ring with Virgin and Child, 6th–7th century, gold, 3.3 x 2.4 x 1.3 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Up until the period of Iconoclasm (c. 726–843), jewelry and clothing regularly featured iconography from the pagan Greco-Roman tradition, such as images of deities like Aphrodite or Dionysus and his followers (as seen on the tunic discussed above).
Necklace with Pendant of Aphrodite Anadyomene, early 7th century, gold and lapis lazuli, 43.2 x 20.3 x 1.9 cm (photo: © Dumbarton Oaks)
Classical iconography was found on ancient gems that were reused in Byzantine works of art, like this fourteenth-century ring made in Constantinople and set with a Roman-era engraved
stone depicting the
Bonus Eventus (“Good Outcome”), but engraved with a protective phrase from the bible.
Signet-ring with an intaglio depicting Bonus Eventus, inscribed with a cross and an excerpt from Psalm 27.1 in Greek: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Late Byzantine, 14th century, Constantinople (Istanbul), gold and nicolo, diam. 2.8 cm (photo: The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Even after pagan cult practices were largely repressed and the majority of the Byzantine population had converted to Christianity, Greco-Roman iconography persisted as an emblem of
, serving to affiliate the owner or wearer of an object with the classical learning and cultural refinement that medieval Byzantines continued to associate with Greco-Roman antiquity. After Iconoclasm, as Christianity fully dominated Byzantine society and pagan mythological iconography was no longer common in objects worn on the body, protective motifs that originated in antiquity still endured, bearing witness to the survival of pre-Christian traditions. For example, the so-called Evil Eye (which protected the wearer from the envy of others), the Holy Rider (who was thought to be powerful against demons and other evil forces) and the Chnoubis (a magical motif that was believed to be especially effective against headaches and ailments of the uterus) can be found in medieval—and even modern—amulets.
Amulet with the Evil Eye (attacked by weapons and animals) and the Holy Rider (who spears the female demon Gyllou), early Byzantine, 5th–6th century, bronze, 2 x 5 cm (photo: The Walters Art Museum, CC0)
Christian motifs also functioned as
devices to protect or heal through their materials and iconography. An elaborately engraved early Byzantine amulet depicting the
is inscribed with an abbreviation of the relevant biblical passage (Mark 5:25-34). It was intended to cure its owner, who presumably suffered from a similar ailment. The object’s material—hematite—was believed to staunch the flow of blood, and the image would have operated sympathetically, healing the owner of the amulet (who is possibly represented in the praying figure on the reverse) just as Christ healed the woman who sought his aid. 
Woman with the Issue of Blood
Amulet depicting the Woman with the Issue of Blood and Christ (obverse) and a praying figure (reverse), Early Byzantine, Egypt, 6th–7th century, hematite and silver (mount), c. 5 x 4 x 1 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
In the middle Byzantine era, a common item of wearable art was the
. Bronze examples are attested in large numbers. They are decorated with inscriptions and images, often crudely executed.  Constructed from two parts held together by a hinge and pin, the crosses could be opened and filled with holy substances, including relics and
Pectoral Cross-Shaped Reliquary with Saints, middle Byzantine, 11th century, leaded bronze, c. 11 x 7 x 1 cm (Harvard University Art Museums)
Left: Enkolpion Reliquary Cross with Crucifixion and the Virgin, 10th–11th century, silver, gilding and niello, 9.3 x 4 x 0.8 cm (photo: © Dumbarton Oaks); right: Beresford Hope Cross, 9th century, gold, silver, cloisonné enamel, 8.7 x 5.8 x 1.8 cm (photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY 2.5)
More luxurious pectoral crosses might be made from precious metals or enamel. Over the course of the middle Byzantine era,
became an integral part of personal devotion and were closely aligned with an individual’s identity. Some examples were made from luxurious materials—including gold, enamel, pearls, and precious stones—and they were inscribed with prayers for the salvation and defense of the owner. An especially elaborate enkolpion depicts Saint Demetrios (obverse) and the soldier martyrs, Saints Sergios and Bacchos (reverse). A pin at the top can be unscrewed, allowing the container to open. Inside two doors are revealed behind which reclines a miniature
of the saint that likely references his pilgrimage shrine, which was thought to be a site for miracles. An inscription on the edge of this object indicates that it once held a blood relic of Saint Demetrios along with the contact relic of the miraculous balm (oil) excreted at his tomb: “The faith of Sergios [the owner] carries the venerable receptacle of Demetrios’ blood together with the balm. He asks to have you as protector, while he is living, and when he is dead, along with the two martyrs who have won the prize.”
Reliquary of St. Demetrios, Middle Byzantine, early 13th century, enamel on gold, c. 4 cm x 3 cm x 1 cm (Dumbarton Oaks)
Throughout Byzantine history, personal adornment was often contested by Christian commentators, who associated elaborate jewelry and clothing with vanity and fornication. While some ecclesiastical authorities advised that the devout should adorn their bodies with only religious imagery, others criticized such practices as a form of false devotion, arguing that proper Christian behavior required the hard work of adorning the soul through good deeds rather than the quick fix of merely wearing Christian identity on one’s sleeve. Throughout these discussions it is clear that the Byzantines attended carefully to personal appearances, and the materials, motifs, and designs worn on the body were judged as a reflection of an individual’s social and spiritual character.
 Myrto Hatzaki, “The Byzantine Ideal of Beauty: Definitions and Perceptions,” Beauty and the male body in Byzantium: perceptions and representations in art and text (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), esp. 26.
 H. B. Dewing, trans., Procopius: The Anecdota or Secret History, Loeb Classical Library 290 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), 78-81.
 Jacquelyn Tuerk Stonberg, "An Early Byzantine Inscribed Amulet and Its Narratives," Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies (1999): 25-42.
 Brigitte Pitarakis, Les croix-reliquaires pectorales byzantines en bronze (Paris: Picard, 2006).
Christopher Entwistle and Noël Adams, Intelligible Beauty: Recent Research on Byzantine Jewellery (London: British Museum, 2009)
Brigitte Pitarakis, "Objects of Devotion and Protection," in Byzantine Christianity, edited by Derek Krueger and Denis R. Janz, A People’s History of Christianity 3, 164-81 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010).
Thelma K. Thomas, ed. Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016)
Alicia Walker, “Bodily Adornment in Byzantium: Objects and Images,” in The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Art, ed. Ellen Schwartz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021)
Warren T. Woodfin, The Embodied Icon: Liturgical Vestments and Sacramental Power in Byzantium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)
Essay by Dr. Alicia Walker