Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more
Exhibitions/ Jewelry: The Body Transformed/ The Divine Body

Jewelry: The Body Transformed

At The Met Fifth Avenue
November 12, 2018–February 24, 2019

The Divine Body

From earliest times jewelry has been an attribute of the gods, both linked to and signaling divinity. According to ancient myth, as the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna-Ishtar was stripped of her jewelry on the way to the underworld, her power diminished. These groupings of ancient objects, from sites ranging from Egypt to the Americas, underscore jewelry's extraordinary capacity to capture, activate, and embody the divine. Many of the ornaments here were buried with their wearers as essential adornment for the next world. Together, these works speak to the necessity of jewelry in navigating the landscape of the gods.

When we picture the boy king Tutankhamen today, he is always adorned with the iconic broad collar associated with ancient Egyptian dress. When he died in about 1325 B.C. at age nineteen, multiple broad collars were made, some for his burial and others for the feast at his tomb. One of the latter miraculously survives here. An intricate composition that included olive leaves and nightshade berries, it remains a marvelous rebuke to mortality.

The broad collar was the quintessential piece of jewelry in ancient Egypt. From about 2400 B.C., Egyptian deities were consistently portrayed wearing one, along with pairs of bracelets and anklets. This association with the gods meant that beaded broad collars were primarily owned by kings, queens, and members of the elite and were worn to celebrate important events. Small replicas were also laid upon mummies, a burial practice to protect the deceased.

Selected Objects

Jewelry in the ancient world possessed extraordinary powers, including the ability to conjure deities through both sight and sound. When participating in rituals for the Egyptian goddess Hathor, royal women wore a set of bejeweled finery that included a menat-necklace. Fashioned from hundreds of tiny beads, the object produced a soft rustling noise when shaken that summoned Hathor to "appear," or take part in the ceremony. Similarly, the Egyptian princess Sithathoryunet owned an array of ritual jewelry that included a belt with feline heads containing small pellets. When the princess walked or danced, the belt made a gentle tinkling sound, presumably to catch the ear of a deity.

While "noisy" adornments could call gods and goddesses into being, jewelry elements laden with potent images and symbols could themselves become manifestations of specific divinities. The symbols on a set of pendants found in the Mesopotamian city of Dilbat made the deities present through a type of sympathetic magic. The biblical prophet Isaiah likely had Mesopotamian pendants of this sort in mind when he called for a ban on "idolatrous" jewelry.

Selected Objects

In the ancient world, the dead could be more adorned than the living. At the Mesopotamian site of Ur, excavators uncovered lavish burials from about 2500 B.C. Arranged like underground stage sets, the burials contained an abundance of precious grave goods and also showed evidence of human sacrifice. Most astounding of all was the jewelry, found in great numbers and in the form of repeated "sets" on scores of bodies. Hair combs, headdresses, gold hair ribbons, earrings, necklaces, and pins were laid out in the tombs as if for some grand eternal production.

Ancient Egyptians were no less mindful of the theatrical aspects of burial, with jewelry playing a starring role in the complex arrangements necessary to ensure the body's safe passage to the afterlife. The divinity of gold and the power of protective imagery safeguarded the mummy during the most dangerous stage of that journey. The ensemble for a wife of Thutmose III stands among the most extravagant known examples of these sets of funerary-complex jewelry; her gold ornaments, made about 1450 B.C., include magnificent toe and finger covers designed to keep her body fully intact into the next realm.

Selected Objects

The elegant and mesmerizing form of the spiral is a common motif in the three-thousand-year-old jewelry of the European Bronze Age. Though we do not know its precise meaning, the spiral would seem an ideal symbol of the contradictory forces of the universe: its unfurling suggests infinity; its involution, a reassuring fixed point.

The precision of the spiral form also advertised the technical prowess and wizardry of the smith, a tamer of fire and metals. Bronze workshops were often integrated into burial areas or ritual zones. A combination of practical skills and esoteric knowledge enabled metalsmiths to convert raw material into charged and imposing objects. By stretching, shaping, and hammering thick ingots of bronze—a magic-infused ritual itself—they produced striking ornaments of varying size and shape. The oversize and enigmatic jewelry seen here, so modern in its sensibility, was preserved in graves or in buried hoards. Its power appears to have resided in its ability to bring about a transformation of the body and, when in hoards, to alter the landscape.

Selected Objects

Centuries before the myth of El Dorado fueled Spanish passions for a legendary city of gold, the Calima people in the Cauca Valley of Colombia practiced a ritual in which their leaders' bodies were virtually enveloped in gold jewelry. Gold was considered a divine substance, linked to the sun and its power. The human face revealed and concealed was a favorite motif. Head, chest, and arm ornaments might feature a face rendered in high relief, its features partially obscured by a nose ornament—itself embossed with eyes and a mouth—and by two large disks suspended from earspools. Elaborate jewelry may have allowed the wearer to assume powerful new identities: projections on a headdress, for instance, probably emulated feathers. Pendants augmented the overall effect, producing a delicate sound and sparkling reflections as the wearer moved.

Worn in life before they accompanied Calima leaders in death, these ornaments were likely efficacious as well as decorative, imbuing their wearers with supernatural strength and protection. Adorned with dazzling, kinetic regalia made of a sacred material, the golden men of Calima were without doubt symbolically transformed into divine beings, their mortal bodies concealed by a shining, eternal shell.

Selected Objects