Body Decorations of the Byzantine Empire

Jeweled Crown From Byzantine

Byzantine emperor Justinian I, with crown, displays the intricately jeweled clasp that fastens his cloak. Reproduced by permission of the Granger Collection.

Lt the beginning of the Byzantine Empire (4761453 C.E.), Byzantine customs surrounding body decoration and accessories closely resembled those of their fellow Roman countrymen. Byzantines in the capital city of Constantinople developed public baths similar to those found in Rome, and public bathing was a daily ritual for many. Byzantines also enjoyed wearing a wide variety of jewelry, including earrings, rings for the fingers and toes, bracelets, anklets, necklaces, and fibulae, clasps to fasten their clothing. Gold and silver were the favored metals for jewelry, although the Byzantines came to use gold plate—a thin plate of gold on top of another material—more than solid gold, perhaps because of a shortage of gold.

As the Byzantine Empire developed, it absorbed more and more elements of its costume tradition from the Middle East and the Orient. For example, unlike the Romans, who used a lot of makeup and cosmetics, the Byzantines avoided heavy preparations for their skin. Instead, they developed rich perfumes using ingredients obtained in trade from China, India, and Persia,

Byzantine emperor Justinian I, with crown, displays the intricately jeweled clasp that fastens his cloak. Reproduced by permission of the Granger Collection.

modern-day Iran. Perfume making was developed as an esteemed trade.

The Byzantines also developed several distinct forms of jewelry. A favorite technique was enameling, in which a glassy coating was baked onto a surface, usually in a decorative pattern or figure. Cloisonné enameling featured small panels of enameled figures separated by raised gold borders and could be found on distinctive Byzantine armlets and on squares that could be fastened to clothing. Byzantines were also particularly fond of rings, which they devised in many shapes and styles. Men as well as women wore jewelry, and the display of abundant jewelry was a primary means of showing off wealth.

The Byzantines were extremely fond of patterns, and they sought ways to use patterns on nearly all of their clothing. They developed a special form of silk fabric called samite, which they used for their thickly patterned brocades (a type of fabric with raised patterns). They also used embroidery to create decorative trim that could be sewn onto garments. This embroidery might be done with thread made from precious metals such as gold, and could include pearls and other jewels.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Baltoyianni, Chryssanthi. "Byzantine Jewelry." Hellenic Ministry of Culture. http://www.culture.gr/2/22/225/22501/225013/e013intro.html (accessed on July 29, 2003).

Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

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