Jewellery in Paintings: Exploring the Symbolism and Narrative of Jewellery in Art

From the Renaissance to contemporary times, jewellery has been used by artists as a secret language to express a multitude of ideas, adding layers of content and artistic mastery to their works.

Today we’ll explore how jewellery is depicted in art to gain a deeper understanding of the artist's intent, the historical context, and the symbolic language used. 

The Symbolism of Jewellery in Art:

Jewellery in paintings often serves as a powerful symbol, representing wealth, status, power, and even spiritual or emotional significance. In the Middle Ages, many artists incorporated jewellery into their works to elevate the status of their subjects.

Later, in Renaissance art, more layers of symbols were added to the narrative such as Botticelli’s “Primavera”. It has been described as "one of the most written about, and most controversial paintings in the world" as a result of its strong allegory and profound layers of symbols. For instance, Primavera celebrates spring and depicts a group of mythological figures like Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, Cupid, and the Three Graces. Now look closely at the Three Graces.

The Three Graces represent the feminine virtues of Chastity, Beauty, and Love. Traditionally depicted nude in classical art, Botticelli reimagined them in diaphanous white dresses adorned with a delicate pearl headpiece symbolising purity and beauty. A subtle touch of nature is woven in with brooches shaped like leaves, a symbol of spring and growth.

Moving into the Baroque era, we encounter the dramatic use of jewellery in the works of Caravaggio. In "The Penitent Magdalene," the jewellery is thrown to the side symbolising Magdalene leaving her dissolute life.

By decoding the symbolism of jewellery, we gain a better understanding of the artist's message and the context of the painting.

Narrative Elements of Jewellery in Art:

Jewellery can also be used to advance the narrative of a painting. It plays a crucial role in telling stories and conveying emotions.

For instance, in this classical style painting of Achilles Amongst the Daughters of Lycomedes has much to draw your eyes towards. But, at the centre of the composition is a glittering bowl of trinkets, with a strand of decadent Pearls threaded through the woman’s fingertips. This was a pivotal moment within the legend of Achilles. In Greek mythology, Achilles mother, fearful that her son would die in battle, concealed Achilles as a woman in King Lycomedes household. The Greek chieftains were suspicious of course, so they placed a bowl heaping glittering jewellery and weapons infront of the women as gifts. Unlike the other women, Achilles instantly went towards the swords and shields, revealing his true identity.  Interestingly, Achilles is placed in the shadows, with the light placed upon the centre of the jewels. Just like Lycomede’s daughters, we instinctively want to grab those jewels too.

By observing the jewellery in a painting, we can become active participants in the story the artist is trying to tell or to remind us.

Artistic Expression: Jewels as a Painter's Playground

Beyond symbolism and narrative, jewellery has also been a showcase for artistic virtuosity. Artists like Vermeer meticulously rendered the play of light on various gemstones and materials, creating a sense of realism and texture.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a prominent figure of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, often used his own jewellery in his works. In “The Beloved," the painting depicts the bride, or "beloved", from the Song of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible as she approaches her bridegroom, with her attendants. The central motif of the bracelet is a pair of sea serpents on each side of a water pot with lion masks grasping the plated chain in their jaws. Rossetti first used this exotic piece in 1864 in Monna Pomona and it can clearly be seen worn by The Bride (1865–1866).

Also consider the portraits of John Singer Sargent, known for his exquisite attention to detail. In "Madame X," the portrait of Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, the striking contrast of her black dress against her pale skin is accentuated by the single strap of her gown slipping off her shoulder, adorned with a jewelled clasp. This small detail hints at Gautreau's scandalous reputation, adding intrigue to the painting. In his painting of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, the sitter confronts the viewer with a coy but direct gaze, and her informal pose and flowing lilac dress create the impression of a pretty flower. Even though she wears only a simple pendant barely delineated by Sargent, as well as a gold bracelet, the sitter exudes a fashionable—and distinctly wealthy—disposition. “She whispers money,” Volandes said.

Jewellery becomes an integral part of the artist's visual language, adding depth and dimension to the artwork.

Modern Artists Continuing the Tradition:

Today, contemporary artists such as P.X. Miranda, Anna Weyant, Jenna Gribbon, and Alice Neel continue to explore the allure and symbolism of jewellery in their works.

P.X. Miranda, known for her dreamlike and intricate portraits where jewellery becomes a reflection of the inner world of his subjects, telling stories of identity and self-expression.

Anna Weyant uses bold colours and loose brushstrokes to highlight the significance of jewellery in her figurative paintings, often drawing attention to the contrast between luxury and vulnerability of her sitters.

Jenna Gribbon's intimate portraits capture moments of everyday life, with statement jewellery pieces serving as a marker of personal history and memory.

Alice Neel, a 20th-century figurative painter, uses line and colour, psychological acumen, and emotional intensity. Her portraits of both men and women frequently feature bold and unconventional jewellery choices, reflecting the individuality and societal changes of the time.

In conclusion, jewellery in art transcends mere ornamentation—it is a language of symbols, a narrative device, and an expression of artistic style. From the meticulous details of Renaissance masterpieces to the evocative brushstrokes of Impressionist works, jewellery continues to captivate artists and viewers alike, offering a glimpse into the stories, emotions, and identities that adorn our lives.

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