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Exhibitions/ Jewelry: The Body Transformed/ The Regal Body

Jewelry: The Body Transformed

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

The Regal Body

It should never be hard to spot the king. Through symbolic materials, superlative workmanship, and imagery underscoring the sovereign's power, courtly jewelry invariably reinforces the elaborate hierarchy required to uphold royal power. It distinguishes the monarch's body from those of the royal retinue, and theirs in turn from the general populace. Regal ornamentation also inspires emulation, as forms like the tiara take hold in popular fashion. Whether coral, gold, jade, or pearls, the raw materials of royal jewelry speak to the prerogatives of privilege. Only those with power have control over resources, and the spectacle of rich adornment strengthens their position. The groupings in this section explore a few of the myriad ways jewelry has been used throughout history to assert rank and status.

For Hellenistic kings, opulence was a strategy of self-promotion. A procession of Ptolemy II, held in Alexandria in the third century B.C., involved thousands of participants in gold adornments, including at least thirty-two hundred crowns. By wearing and displaying their wealth, these rulers advertised their position as sovereigns, conquerors, and rightful inheritors of the vast empire established by Alexander the Great.

Following royal example, the Hellenistic elite asserted their own social rank through conspicuous displays of wealth. Gold jewelry abounded—thanks to vast quantities of bullion in circulation from vanquished treasuries—and it commanded attention. The body served as a stage for other bodies: earrings and bracelets incorporated delectable nudes, virtuosic sculptures in miniature. Men wore hefty rings that lent authority and flash to every gesture. Women donned intricate chains that snaked around the body's curves and fringed necklaces that shimmered with every step. Each exquisite ornament proclaimed in corporeal terms the privilege of luxury and its delights.

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The heads of Maize Gods appear in profile on a pair of ancient Maya earflares made of marine shell. Turned inward, just grazing the face, they permitted the deities to speak directly into the ears of the ruler who wore them. Emblems of regal ostentation and privileged intimacy, the earflares underscore the perennial entanglement of jewelry, divinity, and royal power: jewelry permits the bodies of gods and rulers to merge.

Images of resplendent rulers on painted ceramics indicate the richness and weight of Maya regalia. They give a sense of the precious materials worn by both gods and kings—shell, bone, feathers, and most especially jade, used to make pectorals, bracelets, anklets, and earflares. A rare mineral, difficult to work, jade was laden with symbolic power that brought home the divine basis of royal authority. Its blue-green color not only recalled the gods' mountain domain, but also evoked the evanescent life-giving forces that the gods made possible: water, verdant crops, and breath itself.

Selected Objects

"Your might is made known by the throne, and by the tiara, and by the pearl-spangled robe," wrote one court official to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos. In Byzantium, jewelry was a public art form, an expression of an elaborate social hierarchy with the emperor at its apex. The state controlled the distribution and use of certain luxuries such as emeralds, sapphires, and pearls, and the wearing of these extravagances demonstrated proximity to imperial power. Pearls in particular occupied a special place in this world: the Byzantines spoke of them as possessing their own light source, a miraculous remnant of the lightning bolt believed to have penetrated the oyster’s shell during their creation.

Coins and medallions set into a gold collar might read today as a shameless assertion of cost. But the Byzantines understood coins as portable portraits of the emperor; to wear them on the body was to advertise one's confident place within his domain. Emperor portraits also boasted properties of protection and healing. In donning a coin-encrusted jewel, the wearer was banking on its potent mix of majesty and magic.

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If any leader understood the power of adornment, it was Oba Ewuare, who ruled the Kingdom of Benin from 1440 to 1473. He likely established the annual palace rituals renewing the spiritual powers of the oba, or king, that continue today, and it was he who introduced the use of vibrant Mediterranean coral beads into courtly ornament. With its marine origins, coral channeled Olokun, the oba's spiritual counterpart, deity of the sea, and the source of all well-being. The idealized brass portraits that were placed on ancestral altars show how stacks of beads encircled the neck to create a lofty pedestal for the royal head, itself covered with a woven coral crown. Other imported materials reinforced the authority of the oba as well. Ivory signified ritual purity, and brass was believed to have protective qualities. Both materials were deemed appropriate for court regalia. Decorative motifs included crocodiles and mudfish, creatures of both land and sea. Also featured were images of Portuguese traders, whose ships arrived in the late fifteenth century. Their appearance on fine jewelry communicated the oba's power in the form of the economic prosperity his trade network brought to the kingdom.

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Throughout history, men have adorned their bodies as much as women have. Countless portraits from early modern Europe feature men wearing elaborate collars, glittering sword hilts, and decorative armor that speak both to fashion and to an idealized masculinity rooted in notions of sex, valor, and noble birth.

From the late seventeenth century through the end of the eighteenth, well-dressed members of the European gentry wore smallswords with lavishly decorated hilts, alluding to the virility of the masculine body. Earlier courtiers and gentlemen embraced gorgets, a form of neck guard that served as a statement necklace. The secular orders of knighthood also distinguished themselves with insignia suspended from gemmed collars. The most famous was the Order of the Golden Fleece, which borrowed its name and emblem from the legend of a heroic quest to retrieve an emblem of kingly power. The order's founding statutes called for the necklace to be worn daily.

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If dazzling jewels can transform a woman into a vision of regal splendor, then the more the merrier. So goes the logic of the parure, a matched set of jewelry typically consisting of necklace, brooch, earrings, bracelets, and tiara. Is there any form of jewelry that better represents nineteenth-century aristocratic taste, or bourgeois conformity? The gem-encrusted parure marvelously met the needs of the European aristocracy. The sense of order it lent the upper part of the body made it an ideal complement to the simple necklines and restrained silhouettes of the Neoclassical gowns favored by Napoleon's wife, Josephine—especially if the set were mounted with cameos. An example in diamonds and pearls signaled an abundance of wealth, making it an ideal wedding gift from the Prince of Wales to his new bride, Alexandra, in 1863.

Yet the genius of the parure was its adaptability. With repeated forms a shortcut to magnificence, common amethysts, citrines, or even glass paste could readily substitute for diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. Little wonder that the jewelry shops of London and Paris were soon well stocked with fashionable ensembles at every price point. The parure put regal femininity within reach.

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