Urn Willow Onyx Mourning Ring

If you know me well enough, you may think this is hypocritical, but sometimes I often buy jewellery to wear. Yes, as a person who is based in conservation and education, I love my urn/mourning motifs and this one grabbed me. I was in London looking down upon a cabinet of jewellery and it just spoke to my heart. As you can see, there are no dedications on it, which make it safe for me to wear and not feel that I’m harming the memory of a person.

Urn Willow Onyx Mourning Ring

Urn Willow Onyx Mourning RingWant to read a bit more on the use of the willow in jewellery symbolism? Then why not click over here for more!

Greek Key Brooch Victorian

Good morning, jewellery historians! It’s time to unlock your doors, welcome in that fresh sea breeze and start preparing a lunch of dolmades, olives, lamb, feta cheese, kolokythoanthoi and don’t forget the saganaki. Today we’re going to get Neoclassical for a while and discuss an ancient motif that still resonates with us today. A motif that has been adapted by boutique fashion houses, adorns the crests of kings, appears all around us in architecture and even pops up from time to time in those wonderful memorial and sentimental jewels we love so much.

That’s right, today we’re going to be discussing the Greek Keys in early modern mourning and sentimental jewellery! We need to be a bit more specific on this one, as a single article on the subject certainly wouldn’t do the motif justice and I would be here for several years trying to fit it all in. But, sentimental and mourning jewels are what we’re all about, so let’s begin…

To understand the motif, we need to go all the way back to the Greek Geometric Period, a time when the Mycenaean civilisation was in decline, c.1200-1050BCE. During this time, there was a wide dispersal of the culture across the Mediterranean, with reported mentions of the ‘Sea Peoples’ and the decline of the traditional Hittite and Mitanni kingdoms. Many of the reasons for this sudden change in the social/cultural/political paradigms of the region are part of much conjecture, however, what is important for us to focus upon is that where once these established kingdoms with clear art styles relating to specific periods and often the rules of kings were now under massive cultural upheaval and shift. The permeation of a set style could be related to migration, rather than direct trade; cultures were becomingly highly mobile.

The period was considered the ‘Dark Age’ of Greece, due in part to this destabilisation; loss of centralised commercial/power base, literature (Liner B script) and the abandoning of towns/villages showed a collapse of structured civilisation. Hence why much of the knowledge of the time and region comes from burial sites and the art of the time, much of what existed upon pottery. Dating from c.11th century BCE, the art began to emerge, showing simple concentric circles applied by method of brushes and a compass, intersected horizontally along the vessel with heavy (often) black lines. So, the importance of the motif is its relation towards dating from a period with very little documented evidence and what it does show is that industry continued during these Dark Ages, including metal production, farming and weaving. The technology to produce this pottery is another reflection on the continuing advancement of culture, with improvements in glazes, superior potter’s wheels (new shapes, ability to be fired at higher temperatures).

We want to look now at the Early Geometric period (900-850 BCE), where the Greek Key begins to take shape. Here, the meandering pattern is applied to vessels, which had now become taller and glazed in a method of a layer of clay, which produces a metallic colour after firing. Following this, the Middle Geometric period (950-760 BCE) showed an increased focus upon the meandering key motif, whereas it was previously relegated to a secondary flourish, it now had central placement on the vessel. Possibly the most important era in relation to our collections is the interpretation of the Late Geometric Period (760-700 BCE), a time where the vessels had reached their zenith and the meandering pattern had become intrinsically linked to the re-established (or at least organised) Greek society. The meanders of this time involved circles, swastikas, crooked lines and were balanced with many natural motifs, be they mythological/romantic scenes or simply the decoration of the natural world itself.

The importance in the identification of this motif can’t be understated; the Greek Keys are representative of their cultural use within Greek culture, from their architecture through to their obvious use in pottery. Their adaptation and dispersion throughout cultures is resonant of this; while the style itself can harken back to the natural world (consider it a depiction of the sea or two ribbons winding around to create an eternal concept), their adaptation is a reminder of a classical culture at the height of its enlightenment – culture, art, strength and sophistication are all resonant in the Greek Keys.

What is also important is that while the motif can be an affectation, it did adapt through cultural shift. From Philip II of Macedon (who used the motif on his shield) to Alexander the Great and the subsequent rise of the Roman Empire, we see that the art and culture of the Greeks permeated through the Mediterranean and Asia. By the time of the Byzantinian Empire and society’s progression into the decline of the Roman Empire leading into the Dark Ages, the Greek Key motif in all its geometric, bold simplicity has never been forgotten. Because the motif is so simple, so profound and so ubiquitous (as geometric shapes often are), they have been used by various other cultures in completely unrelated methods, such as the early Chinese of the Shang Dynasty and even pre-historic art. For the purposes of this article, we’ll stick to what’s relevant for us to know when we’re looking at our jewels.

Goodness gracious, and here I was thinking we were talking about jewellery today! What on earth happened? How could such a simple motif cause all this verbosity?

Neoclassicism! If you’ve been reading along, you know that the Neoclassical movement is one of the most important artistic shifts to impact sentimental and mourning jewellery. Far be it as a simple affectation of the times; it certainly changed the Western social landscape.

Opulent and dominating

 

The Greek Keys relate heavy to the change in Rococo to the geometric adoption of borders and flourishes in jewellery and art c.1760. Note that the Rococo period is heavy flourished with opulent, dominating gold acanthus/floral patterns. Even ring bands were twisted in scroll motifs and designs, the art of the time is almost always complimentary to its subject For example, the twists and borders in gold-work enhance the nature of the subject of the piece (be it a stone/crystal/hair memento). The ‘Georgian Heart’ design benefits heavily from the excess of the Rococo Period, whereas the memento mori symbols begin to suffer as the symbols became anachronistic in these heavily natural designs.

Hello, Rococo

Hello, Rococo

 

So, note that the surrounding style benefits its time. Hence, the Greek Keys and the return to geometric shapes during the Neoclassical period not only make a grand statement about the return to classical art and culture, but also compliment the shape of the pieces. Much of the Neoclassical jewellery puts the focus directly on the subject. This is in the case of painted ivory depictions of mourning and sentimental scenes, painted miniatures directly relating to the subject, larger hair mementos and symbolism (such as the urn) encrusted with stones or paste. These are the subjects of the piece and these are the elements which project the empathy of the wearer outwardly. Far from the excessive domination of heavy motifs, as in Rococo, the geometric nature of the Greek Keys as a border was ideal to frame the subject of the jewel. This isn’t just the Greek Key itself, but a return to the navette shape, the oval shape and clean, simple lines that resonate from the earlier Greek pottery.

 

Serpent navette ring late 18th century

Clean, geometric, navette. Late 18th century

And how wonderfully did this return to simplicity enhance the statement of the jewellery at the time? Navette, oval, circular, rectangular, these are the shapes of the period c.1760-1820, with the oval taking precedence during the Regency Period.

But leave it to the Victorians to revive a revival period and use it to their benefit. C.1860, a resurgence of Neoclassical style led to the Greek Key motif being used again, but this time more prominently. At a time when empires were being built and the ability to assert dominance through mainstream art/culture, especially by adhering to the great empires of classical times, was essential. As such, while the motif is not counter-cultural as a rebellion to the prior Gothic Revival or even the Romantic periods, it bolsters an increasingly powerful and global society. This is a motif that would remain in the cultural lexicon well into the early 20th century within jewellery design.

Greek Key 1866 Locket Swiss

For examples of the keys in use, let’s first look at this Swiss locket from 1866. The keys are balanced with the symbol of the Lily of the Valley (happiness/purity) and in blue enamel (considered royalty), showing the motif as standing out more than a decorative border. Importantly is the high quality of the piece an how the design was considered in the actual manufacture of the pendant. The design isn’t simply placed arbitrarily on the piece, it becomes part of the shoulders of the piece itself.

Greek Key Brooch Victorian

More commonly in use were the keys in this style of brooch. It was a profound border and eternal/love sentiment, one which worked within mainstream art, was easy to design into a piece (rather than a serpent, which would have many similar connotations) and also enhance the subject of the piece itself, in this case, beautiful hairwork.

The motif was ubiquitous for its time, seen in everything from rings to bracelets to earrings. Its ability to be adapted cross-culturally is important as well. It wasn’t something held in proprietary by the British; the Americans, French, Italians and basically any culture that resonated with classical aspirations not held under the weight of religious direction could adapt the motif without any issue.

Guilloché engraving is also another aspect of the Greek Key revival, though this engine turned engraving technique has more of a tenuous connection with the keys. The entwining line design shares many similarities with the concept of the Greek Keys (as do many other entwined eternal symbols), but as this is a popular method (with and without enamel), its connection isn’t a statement of the same concept.

Gosh, if you’ve made it this far, I think you deserve the lunch you started preparing some time ago. Personally, I think the Greek Keys are such an important and beautifully simple motif that I could wax lyrical about them for days. There is much more to take in on account of them; how they were used in relation to cameos and how the disintegration of the traditional empires and the rise of mass production/communication/travel in the 20th century post WWI led to its decline through the popularity of more naturalistic art styles (such as Nouveau). But, I think you have enough to consider in terms of mourning and sentimental jewels.

Go pop that ouzo and nosh on some olives!

Previously on Symbolism Sunday:

The Urn

The Poppy

The Forget-Me-Not

The Belt/Buckle/Garter

The Upside-Down Torch

The Peacock

Wheat

Pine

Ivy

The Cypress

The Lantern

The Elephant

The Pelican

The Arrow and Quiver

The Knot

The Grape

The Daisy

The Oak

The Acanthus

Revisiting The Trumpet

The Harp

Drapery

The Acorn

The Trumpet

The Male

The Woman

The Three Graces

Faith, Hope and Charity

The Clover

The Willow

The Column

The Hourglass

The Serpent

The Dove

The Dog

The Angel

The Marigold / Lily

Urn in jewelery

Here’s a surprising one for a Sunday morning! Why so surprising? You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d already written about it, lord knows I’ve written about everything in between. The urn, that proud symbol of elegant beauty that holds our earthly remains, that symbol you’ve no doubt seen many a weeping mourning standing beside, that symbol of the Neoclassical period which seemed to appear on nearly every mourning peripheral. And yet, as popular and magnificent as this symbol was (and still is), it seemingly disappeared from jewellery after the Gothic Revival period. Why is this so?

As a side note, if you can’t tell yet, the urn is my favourite symbol, it resonates with a timeless elegance and stern authority that I’d like to think I try to convey a little of. Nonetheless, it’s Symbolism Sunday, so I’ll try to dispense with the narcissism.

The urn itself is a vessel, or more specifically a vase, which naturally have their beginnings in pre-history when humanity began gathering items in order to carry them. We won’t be dwelling on this form of history, but rather the ancient Greek use of the urn in artistic depictions. The urn itself had evolved as a decorative item, often with art displayed upon the vessel itself prior to Greece in neighbouring Mediterranean societies, but its interpretation in jewellery design stems mostly from the Greek and Roman scenes in art and their reinvention during the Neoclassical period.

Usage of the urn had never wavered, however. Cremation of the body and the collection of ashes in the urn is a method that survived ancient civilisations well into the Dark Ages. The name itself is derived from the Latin ‘uro’, meaning ‘to burn’, so no matter what the shape of the vessel the title was always ‘urn’. This is a concept that never left the mainstream mind and its uptake as a Neoclassical symbol and its consistency as a funerary motif is simply a natural evolution for the urn’s depictions.

While burial became the more popular method of interment, the urn still retained its status as a symbol of death, testifying the death/decay of the body and into dust and the departed spirit resting with god.

This brings us to the draped urn. I’ve written about drapery in a previous Symbolism Sunday, but here we’ll focus on its most important use in relation to the urn. The draped urn itself often denotes the death of an older person, however, the drapery is often a constant when in relation to death. Interpretations of this can be when the shroud drapery denotes the departure of the soul towards heaven in relation to the shroud over the body, the drape is the partition between life and death or that it is guarding the sacred contents of the urn itself. In jewellery, finding the urn draped or undraped is quite common, but why is it so?

urn ring

As hinted at before, the urn is a motif that reached incredible heights of popularity in Neoclassicism due to its interpretation from the original classical depictions. It was a motif that was easily lifted from its source and fulfilled all the classical resonance that a revival period needed to convey the style of its respective era. With the focus back upon the personal nature of mourning and the departure of the direct link towards god, death itself became something worn prominently in mainstream fashion. The urn was a perfect way to show this, draped or undraped. Sitting on top of a plinth, column or tomb, the urn is often the central focus of the mourning depiction. The mourning character in the depiction (male or female) is often interacting with the urn in some way, either leaning against it weeping, sitting near it, standing beside it or looking at it directly. This links the personal nature of mourning from the person into the jewel itself. The mourner is the wearer or the person who created the dedication and the urn represents the loved one. Consider that; there’s a direct link in methodology of the urn to the self, this is why the urn is the central motif and not the mourner.

Consider that when looking at a brooch, ring, bracelet clasp, pendant or any other peripheral from the late 18th to early 19th centuries. The urn is the concept that should draw the eye and take precedence over everything else.

18th Century Mourning MIniature with Contemporary Woman

Yet, it is a symbol that disappeared soon after the first quarter 19th century. If you’ve read anything else on this blog, you’ll know that the Gothic Revival period played a key role in reverting society back to more ‘traditional’ values and using a direct relation to the body in the urn conflicts with the burial/god connection which was part of the social understanding of life and death, that Christian values returned to a life under god. You can find the urn in use to around the 1820s, but many of the latter uses in jewels are anachronistic in the same way that memento mori would have been during the late 18th century. However, in funerary, the urn was still retained and is to this very day. In fact, its use in architecture in the latter 19th century / early 20th century was quite typical, but it had largely disappeared as a motif to represent the self in mourning.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the urn in future editions, but for now, sit back, relax and know that you’ve earned a comfortable day!

Previously on Symbolism Sunday:

The Poppy

The Forget-Me-Not

The Belt/Buckle/Garter

The Upside-Down Torch

The Peacock

Wheat

Pine

Ivy

The Cypress

The Lantern

The Elephant

The Pelican

The Arrow and Quiver

The Knot

The Grape

The Daisy

The Oak

The Acanthus

Revisiting The Trumpet

The Harp

Drapery

The Acorn

The Trumpet

The Male

The Woman

The Three Graces

Faith, Hope and Charity

The Clover

The Willow

The Column

The Hourglass

The Serpent

The Dove

The Dog

The Angel

The Marigold / Lily

Poppy in Jewelery

It’s Sunday morning and you’re no doubt munching on a poppy seed bagel or some other baked treat and you’re no doubt wondering; did these wonderfully delicious seeds sprout a jewellery symbol? Well, that’s why I’m here to help you though these difficult Sunday mornings by explaining the world around, so let’s begin!

Today’s symbol is a request and it’s not an easy one to discover in jewellery, but let’s run through some of its history before we get there.

Symbolically, the poppy is an easy symbol to find in funeralia; it has been in the popular lexicon since the times of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Simply, the flower represents peace, rest, sleep, eternal sleep, resurrection and consolation. The flower was used in Egyptian burial tombs, the Greeks used the flower in the shrines of Demeter and Diana (goddesses of the hunt and fertility, respectively) and most recently, its use for wartime remembrance has made it a popular symbol around the world.

But why is this so? Firstly, the colour of the flower and its relation to blood is important. It is when symbols are interpreted through their most basic characteristics that they are the most ubiquitous and popular. The simple nature of its colour makes the flower honest and cross-cultural in its interpretation. Use is another factor to understand; the poppy provides opium (causing sleep) and opium has been in use since the Neolithic period. Sleep and blood, two things which every one of us share and are necessary to the function of life.

Poppy in Jewelery

Which brings us back to jewellery. As stated, finding the poppy in funeralia (cemeteries, ephemera) is quite simple and has been so throughout the early modern period to today (which we focus on in this website). Finding it in jewellery as a primary symbol is rather a different thing, however. The symbol was used quite typically during the Art Nouveau period as a symbol or a motif in itself, but previously, the symbol was relegated to a secondary symbol. During the 17th and 18th centuries, during the height of the Baroque and Rococo influences on jewellery design, the poppy may be seen with other floral motifs in decorative borders or gold-work. This can be seen in rings and brooch designs from the time, but only when the styles are at their most opulent. It can be considered that it made a similar appearance during the early 19th century in pieces that started to take on the Gothic Revival styles, but once again in borders and flourishes.

The Neoclassical influence on society and the swing towards interpretative symbolism of the natural world and humanistic depictions is where the poppy can be seen, but not as a primary symbol (at least not in mainstream pieces). This is spurred on by the very nature of the Neoclassical movement; interpreting art from the ancient cultures, where the poppy was used as a popular symbol. It can be found relegated to scenery in mourning depictions, often surrounding the tomb, or appearing at the feet of the mourning character (male or female).

Poppy in Jewelery

Every year we wear the poppy as a sentimental jewel in its own right; John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ popularised the flower and its use for fallen soldiers in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and NZ for Veterans’ Day, Remembrance Day and the ANZAC commemorations as a poppy worn on the lapel resonates today. Clearly, this is one of the most ubiquitous and popular memorial jewels worn today.

So, there we have the poppy! So, finish your bagel (or other baked treat!) and remember the brilliant history of those tiny seeds on top.

Next week, we’ll have to earn our symbolism…

Previously on Symbolism Sunday:

The Forget-Me-Not

The Belt/Buckle/Garter

The Upside-Down Torch

The Peacock

Wheat

Pine

Ivy

The Cypress

The Lantern

The Elephant

The Pelican

The Arrow and Quiver

The Knot

The Grape

The Daisy

The Oak

The Acanthus

Revisiting The Trumpet

The Harp

Drapery

The Acorn

The Trumpet

The Male

The Woman

The Three Graces

Faith, Hope and Charity

The Clover

The Willow

The Column

The Hourglass

The Serpent

The Dove

The Dog

The Angel

The Marigold / Lily

forget me not 20th century

I’m about to travel around the world for several weeks, so here’s an appropriate symbol to carry us through; the forget-me-not!

Flower symbolism conveys messages that are engrained within our culture, through the last two centuries of re-enforcing their statement as symbols. The 18th and 19th centuries Romantic movement helped establish a push away from the paradigms of ecclesiastical and traditional worship, while putting the focus back upon the natural world around and the passions of the human experience. Hence it is only natural (pun intended) that as the 19th century forget me not ringabsorbed much of the cultural shift back to traditional values during the Gothic Revival period, that many of these concepts would remain and be elaborated upon, but not revolutionised. What do I mean by this? Simply that the interpretation of flora into symbolism was aesthetically pleasing, symbolically safe (often with roots back to religious concepts) and were easy to interpret in jewellery design. The motifs worked well within the Christian concepts and symbols, so where many other symbols may cause the viewer to think twice, flora was defined and catalogued for easy interpretation and use.

“Forget-me-not, O Lord!” is what a poor German knight shouted as he fell into a river. He and his lady were picking flowers by the side of the river at the time, no doubt enjoying the beautiful day around them, and yet as fate would have it, the knight’s armour dragged him down to the bottom as he fell in. Upon his cries to the Lord, he threw the blue posy of flowers to his loved one and promptly drowned. This little tale reportedly dates to around the 15th century, but no doubt had different permeations along the way, as romantic stories often do. Hence, the concept of remembrance, eternal love and faithfulness grow from this.

forget me not 20th centuryAnother fable is that of the baby Jesus playing magician with his mother Mary. He was quite an articulate lad and thought how wonderful it would be if everyone could see her beautiful eyes forever. He touched her eyes and waved his hands over the ground below and then the magnificent blue forget-me-nots sprung from the earth. Relating back to my earlier points of how floral symbolism was safe in the context of religion, here we have the eternal memory symbolism not only implied with its name, but infused with solid Christian concept.

Now that we have the tales out of the way, the symbolism of the forget-me-not is obviously implied within its name. It should also be noted that the flower grows quite ubiquitously in Europe, America and Asia. Its first use in English literature is reportedly from c.1532 and is otherwise named Myosotis (mouse’s ear). Interestingly enough is the rise of the flower’s popularity c.15-16th centuries. This is what we, as jewellery historians, need to understand. From this, we have the popularity of the posy ring and its use as a love token in jewellery. The posy (poesy, posie, posey) emerged at a time when modern society was developing through a shift back to the personal and emerging from the middle ages and its strict adherence to ecclesiastical living. Giving a ring with an inscription on the inside as a token of love was a profound statement, it showed that relationships were increasingly interpersonal and not decreed before god. It was between the couple. Hence, the forget-me-not was used as a decoration (often crude) in some of these rings to denote its message of love and remembrance.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the use of the forget-me-not didn’t change, however, it did blend in well with the Rococo and Baroque excess of design well enough that it could balance with other flowers and leaf motifs. By the time of the Neoclassical period, its use was relegated more towards being a footnote in memorial jewel depictions painted on ivory. During this time and the rise of hairwork weaves becoming mainstream and popular, the forget-me-not did become a symbol used to create floral depictions from hair.

The 19th century is when the forget-me-not truly found its place as a central motif. Many rings, bracelets, brooches and mourning/sentimental peripherals showcased the forget-me-not as a primary motif, often boldly displayed on enamel. Often, other symbols (buckle/belt/serpent/cross) would complement the forget-me-not, rather than it being a symbol used as a design flourish or in repartition. Where the flower was used in more decorative areas of jewellery was in the Rococo Revival period, especially the latter 19th century, and lasted into the 20th century with its reliance on its romantic roots. Its use in the 20th century became much softer; in the forget me notEdwardian period, the romantic movement adopted the symbol and applied it (often in enamel) to lockets and by the time of the First World War, its relation to the remembrance of soldiers (carried through by poetry) and into the Second World War was assured.

Today, the forget-me-not is still as resonant as it was one hundred years ago and you can still find it as a popular motif in jewellery to give to a loved one.

So, I’ll be away for a few weeks, but the site will still be updated. Forget me not, jewellery historians!

Previously on Symbolism Sunday:

The Belt/Buckle/Garter

The Upside-Down Torch

The Peacock

Wheat

Pine

Ivy

The Cypress

The Lantern

The Elephant

The Pelican

The Arrow and Quiver

The Knot

The Grape

The Daisy

The Oak

The Acanthus

Revisiting The Trumpet

The Harp

Drapery

The Acorn

The Trumpet

The Male

The Woman

The Three Graces

Faith, Hope and Charity

The Clover

The Willow

The Column

The Hourglass

The Serpent

The Dove

The Dog

The Angel

The Marigold / Lily

Broom locket symbolism jewellery

Let’s light the way this Sunday with one of the more unfortunate symbols in jewellery history, a symbol that would otherwise denote the pathway through the darkness, but here, shows the inherent darkness that we must face.

Yes, it’s Symbolism Sunday and it’s time to look at a motif through the eyes of a 19th century grieving family.

The torch is a symbol that represents several concepts, concepts which harken back to its literal interpretation, for when there is darkness, there is light to guide the way. One of these representations is hope. Hope, as a concept, provides an optimistic future that the birth of a child or the continuation of a family will bring. Without this continuity, the family would be lost to the darkness, without hope, tomorrow is lost. Hence, a torch as light, beacons the new day, the new era and a path that is brighter than what has come before.

Let’s now look at how that reflects upon the torch as enlightenment. Once the torch is lifted into the sky by its barer, there is an inherent reflection upon the torch as a beacon for intelligence, thought and progression into the future from the darkness that falls before it. Hence, it is the torch that shines the way for modernity (or liberté, égalité, fraternity, if you will). Thought, theory, truth, modernity and humanity come together in a design and a symbol of progression.

Let’s take that all in for a moment.

Broom locket symbolism jewellery

In today’s symbolism example, we have to apply these concepts back to the family as look at the design as an overarching motif.

We are presented with an upside down torch. Everything, the very essence, of the family that the upright torch represents is turned upside down and shut off, That bright light which would pave the way for the next generation is gone and lost, the continuation of hope is gone and so is the enlightenment that the family could progress with.

When combined with the Victorian views on mortality and the concept of the family (see the articles about the Gothic Revival period and its impact on 19th century culture here), we’re looking into a bold and very profound statement of mortality that has all the stoicism that the late 19th century generated in the family and the gravity of that symbol when placed over the heart in a locket.

This symbol is surrounded by the buckle, which if you’ve read my writing before, you know well enough what the means, but I will discuss it in another Symbolism Sunday, however, the upside-down torch is loss at its most basic.

Reflecting upon the symbol as that of lost hope, let’s look at how the Neoclassicists depicted this symbol a century before.

Faith jewellery sepia

Faith, hope and charity were (and still are) common symbols for their representation. Cross (faith), hope (anchor) and charity (heart) are still common motifs today (read more about them in my Symbolism Sunday about Faith, Hope and Charity). Their depictions on the symbols in Neoclassical art are often that of the weeping woman, surrounded by the willow and holding onto the (or surrounded by), the symbols which depict the grief. The grief becomes beauty and depicts a serenity that can be appreciated for its artistic merit, rather than its depth of meaning.

There are scenes of the woman clinging to the cross, even upon the anchor, which reflect an outpouring of grief, but the stoicism that the 19th century provides for the matter-of-fact Christian, high mortality, industrialised reality of the black-upon-gold symbolism is its own gravity, it is a statement that doesn’t overcomplicate the design, but enhances it beyond what the prior society would flow around the idea of the concept with humanitarian depictions.

Upside-down torch in jewellery

At this point in today’s lesson, remember that the upside-down torch is the life cut short, the loss of hope and enlightenment. Bereft of future.

Looking at today’s subject of a youth as the focus of the locket, it makes the symbol so much more poignant. The child which would, for the previous three hundred years, be characterised by white enamel becomes a statement for the family’s grief, be it masculine or feminine, the child is lost and the family suffers.

Furthermore to this, the flame as regeneration when held upright is lost. Flame burns, regenerates and feeds of the very air around it, lose this and you lose your familial regeneration.

Other interpretations of the torch are more romantic in basis or for their liturgic reasons, however, we’re looking at the upside-down torch and its representation in mourning jewellery.

Broom locket symbolism jewellery

Previously on Symbolism Sunday:

The Peacock

Wheat

Pine

Ivy

The Cypress

The Lantern

The Elephant

The Pelican

The Arrow and Quiver

The Knot

The Grape

The Daisy

The Oak

The Acanthus

Revisiting The Trumpet

The Harp

Drapery

The Acorn

The Trumpet

The Male

The Woman

The Three Graces

Faith, Hope and Charity

The Clover

The Willow

The Column

The Hourglass

The Serpent

The Dove

The Dog

The Angel

The Marigold / Lily

The peacock in jewellery symbolismRarely does a symbol encompass so much and rarely does a symbol appear do visually stunning as a motif that its connotations are overcome by its simple beauty.

It’s another Sunday and you’re reading Symbolism Sunday, where I prepare you for a long day of lounging and absorbing culture and art. If I can entice you to leave the lounge and visit your local museum, then I’m doing my job!

The peacock is such a strong motif among so many cultures. Let’s begin with the Greek perception of the bird. Originally, the peacock was associated with the goddess Hera (or Juno), who placed the hundred eyes upon the plumage representing eyes of Argus as guardian of Io (one of Zeus’ lovers), whom Her punished – also they show the vault of heaven, with the eyes of the stars above.

We’ll move into the depiction of the bird in jewellery later in the article, but let’s focus for a second on its natural depiction. The bird has the magnificent plumage with the apparent ‘eyes’ that develop when the bird raises these feathers. Since the bird has been recorded in history, this has captured the imagination of society; cultures have attempted to understand and define these feathers within the greater symbolic understanding of their own lexicon. From a jewellery perspective, they’re simply beautiful, but to understand why the bird is so popular, we need to take a look at these cultural representations.

I don’t often like to stray too far from the Western symbolism and its representations, as they can cloud the meaning of the symbol within early modern jewellery, but the Babylonian and Persian representations of the symbol are for the guardian of loyalty and often used to represent royalty. In Hindu culture, Lakshimi is associated with the peacock (depicted blue), linked with patience, kindness, compassion, benevolence and good luck. Asian representations involve Quan Yin and the association as a signifier of love, compassionate watchfulness, goodness and nurturing. Essentially, Kuan Yin (Quan Yin) is shown with a peacock to show her as a protector of all creatures. As often with deity associations, the symbolism of the animal becomes the symbolism of the deity and vice versa.

And where do we go from here? Most of the interpretations of the peacock will relate to our study on jewellery, as once we start to take in the modern interpretations, we have to understand them before we can recognise them in a jewel or as a symbol for the self.

“Cauda pavonis” was the moment in alchemy when the purification of metal would transmute the mercury into gold; the purification of metals where the hermetic tradition understood that inside each metal, a golden soul was awaiting the moment to emerge. This moment was thought to take millions of years, however, alchemists believed they commanded a system of evolving the metals by burning the impurities of the lead. Transformation into a golden purity.

And what does “cauda pavonis” translate to? Why, “peacock’s tail”, of course! This also related to the moment of understanding that the human soul would comprehend, when at the point of rebirth, the soul would see no difference between the person and nature – all was linked. At this point, as with the impurity of the lead being burnt away, the soul would become a soul of gold.

There we have the perception of the peacock in a time when memento mori was becoming a statement of living, a concept that would be presented on the self as a series of symbols to denote mortality and judgement. So, when the peacock is used in jewellery symbolism a century later, were these perceptions kept?

We have to consider the Western, Christian connotations in all things when it comes to memorial and sentimental jewels. Recently I was asked about the greater scope of symbolism in the jewels, but the mindset of society is intrinsically linked with the Christian religion, regardless of how dissociative it tried to become through different art periods.

Saint Augustine wrote of the peacock’s antiseptic qualities and incorruptibility, based upon the perceptions of the bird’s flesh not decaying and the association with the bird in Christ’s resurrection. Bringing this back, as most symbols do, to the natural world; the belief was that the bird loses its feathers in the autumn and grows them in the spring. Once again, seasonal resurrection, much as the harvest of wheat (fertility) and all other naturally occurring symbols. From this, we’re leading into the associations of the peacock in jewellery that we can identify. When we see the peacock, we need to understand what the person who was commissioning or wearing these pieces were considering when using them to represent themselves. Firstly, we must think sentimentality and memorials, then we must consider why that would be worn.

Moving back to the natural, the perception of the all-seeing church is defined through the naturally occurring ‘eye’ motifs in the plumage of the bird. Reflecting this with Christ’s resurrection and that of the alchemical purity, we have the same concepts occur again, the peacock becomes a modern phoenix; renewing and remaining immortal.

That’s what it boils down to (excuse the pun); incorruptibility of flesh, immortality and integrity.

It’s a Sunday and you’re no doubt growing impatient over this discussion, so I’ll answer the question ‘where do I find the peacock in jewellery?’

That’s not too hard. The piece above shows a connection of symbols (which, if you ask nicely, I’ll discuss in another article) from the late 18th century, a time when the Neoclassical style overcame popular art, culture and society. From this, we have the same Christian connotations, but with the overt nature of them being pushed behind in favour of alluding to the nature of the symbol through the symbol. Here, the peacock was used a symbol in conjunction with others to denote the above – incorruptibility of flesh, immortality and integrity. You can find it in bracelets, rings, pendants and other peripheral jewellery painted on ivory. From the 19th century, you can find the symbol standing on its own, often encrusted with jewels and given as a token of love/affection for the same symbolic reasons.

By the 20th century, the peacock became part of the decorative lexicon of the Art Deco movement, influenced by the paradigm sift in the late 19th century to using natural designs in jewellery. This came as a shift away from the 19th century revival periods and the many years of stylistic stagnation that individual designers broke free from (hence the rise of Art Nouveau), so in many ways, the peacock had found its presentation in jewellery for its own plumage, rather than be relegated to its symbolic nature. The Pre-Raphaelites understood the past and broke free from its paradigms by re-interpreting style, a kind of revival in itself, but presenting a solid statement against the mainstream style that had kept the late 19th century in a very formal paradigm. Finding a peacock motif (peacock eye, colours of the plumage, symbol entwined in a design) would not be uncommon and mostly set in silver.

One cannot forget the colour of the bird; its colours are important for the materials used to represent them. Opal, foil backed glass, sapphire, topaz and aquamarine would be used to represent the plumage. This was not a rule, as the motif often overrode the natural beauty of the bird and it became the shape of the bird to be the primary symbol (which could be filled with any other coloured stone).

Previously on Symbolism Sunday:

Wheat

Pine

Ivy

The Cypress

The Lantern

The Elephant

The Pelican

The Arrow and Quiver

The Knot

The Grape

The Daisy

The Oak

The Acanthus

Revisiting The Trumpet

The Harp

Drapery

The Acorn

The Trumpet

The Male

The Woman

The Three Graces

Faith, Hope and Charity

The Clover

The Willow

The Column

The Hourglass

The Serpent

The Dove

The Dog

The Angel

The Marigold / Lily

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