Decor adorned: Jewelry in the ancient world

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Pictured above: Great Palace Mosaics Museum floor panel (detail)

Matt Hanson writes about mosaics, jewelry and the ancient world, inspired by his trips to the Great Palace Mosaics Museum and the Archaeology Museum in Istanbul.

By Matt A Hanson

In Istanbul’s Great Palace Mosaics Museum, the scenes depicted in the many and fragmented fish-scale limestone, terracotta and marble panels dating back to 450 AD and excavated in 1935 evoke another world, one greener and more alive. Only a few paces from what was once a blaring, stadium-like hippodrome that served as a coliseum for the Greek-speaking Byzantine, or Eastern Roman Empire, the 17th-century Arasta Bazaar within the complex of the Blue Mosque houses one of the principal collections of mosaic artworks that once graced the floors and walls of the Orthodox emperor’s Great Palace, their productions culminating during the legendary rule of Justinian I, builder of the still-contested mosque-church of Hagia Sophia. 

The central and immediately visual distinction between today’s contemporary milieu and that of life as pictured in Byzantine mosaics from fifteen centuries ago is a change in the local ecology. Among the 150 human and animal figures and 90 themes rendered in imperfect squares of stone painted with exquisite detail, most are gruesome, unflinching sights of animal death, blood squirting from the jaws of big cats, avian predators and mythical beasts that hybridize the two with an imagination to encompass the greater art histories of Middle Eastern and Anatolian civilizations beyond the post-Hellenistic pale. As a point of sharp contrast from the 21st century, the ancients were surrounded by a swelling biomass of carnivorous fauna. 

There are fewer images of people than there are of animals within what remains of the mosaics that decorated the Great Palace of the Byzantine Empire. Where they stand, they appear weak, vulnerable and moved by fear, armed in defense of snarling tigers, perched on the edge of a cliff philosophizing in solitude, or embarking on a long, arduous journey by camel over the remote deserts of untold and bygone mystical ventures. A close approximation of jewelry in these painstakingly salvaged images is a leafy diadem, worn by a childlike sort of man together with a similarly proportioned fellow on the back of a dromedary, holding what seems to be a pet bird. These characters are unaffected, austere, solemn, and aloof in their premodern identities.   

Before there was anything resembling a middle class, the bulk of human history was divided into those who owned possessions, including slaves, and those who owned nothing, often not even their own lives. The Byzantine mosaics of Constantinople’s Grand Palace convey a harsh order of social realism in which the majority of figures are barely clothed, never mind adorned in bejeweled precious metals. Yet, in one panel captioned, “Mountain huntsman in oriental garb hunting gazelles”, the mosaic flashes with an emerald, golden sheen, as the foregrounded rider wears a likeness of bracelets, their robe glinting with touches popular among Byzantine royalty. 

In Turkish, the caption differs from the English and German. Its translation from Turkish reads: “A horse hunter dressed as a king”. The conservation project of the Grand Palace Mosaics was a joint endeavor by the Ministry of Culture in Turkey and the Austrian Academy of Sciences. From 1983 to 1997, expert excavators from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Turkey and the USA rescued integral pieces from the puzzle of global, tangible heritage, however representing only a fraction of the palace’s original decor. Where women are pictured in the sprawling floor relief, which spans three rooms, one figure carrying a copper jug wears a plain, big circular earring. Less reflective than the vessel she’s transporting, her eye, shown in profile, appears kohl-lined. 

Examining the animals closely, a group of dogs hunt a rabbit in a vivid scene, drawing blood. There is ample evidence that the ancients had a tendency to beautify violence. The dogs, curiously, are wearing differently colored collars, one that even looks golden. It could be surmised then that jewelry either derived from systems of ownership, or pride, and aestheticized the nature of possession. It is no wonder then, why hunters and soldiers would have liberally adorned themselves, proudly, while intending to win the spoils of a battle or outfox a beast. In a separate panel, a hunter pierces the throat of a leopard with their sword while wearing a breastplate festooned with an especially Byzantine pastiche of metallic colors.

Not far from Arasta Bazaar, past the orange shadows of Hagia Sophia, and alongside the castle walls of Topkapi Palace, Istanbul’s historic Archaeological Museum stands overlooking the verdant hills of Gulhane Park, where the sultan’s entourage likely hunted wild creatures not dissimilar from that shown in the mosaics of their Christian predecessors. They may have even feared seeing the fabled griffins or satyrs that the Byzantine mosaic artists portrayed with seamless naturalism within the mysteries of their domain. One room in the museum is dedicated to jewelry from the Hellenistic and Roman eras. But there is not a single adaptation of mosaic on display and a handful of glass works from ancient Ephesus, Sardis and Rhodes.

The jewelry room, however, projects the image of a famous mosaic artwork from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, which, in relief, reveals the vibrancy of jewelry culture when rendered within the masterpiece of a mosaic relief. The panel, made in 547 AD, centers the Empress Theodora, storied for her rags-to-riches origins as a Constantinople street worker who rose to the heights of imperial glory in the Byzantine court. She is adorned in a headdress heavy with jewels over a gleaming breastplate and dressed in a long robe with gilded hems matching that of her lofty entourage. She holds a golden chalice, which, itself, is set with blue and green gems, looking back, cold as stone through her immortal visage. Her face is stoic, despite being the most powerful woman in her world, and perhaps the most bejeweled.

All photos are by Matt Hanson and they show details from the Great Palace Mosaics Museum in Istanbul.