All that Glitters at The Met

Gold sandals and toe stalls, Egyptian, Tomb of the Three Foreign Wives of Thutmose III, Thebes New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, ca. 1479–1425 B.C. Photo: Adel Gorgy
Jewelry across the world and the ages
By Mary Gregory

Not every culture cherished paintings or fancy furniture. Not every culture created books. Not every culture wanted much in the way of clothing. But every culture since the beginning of history has found a use for jewelry, posits Melanie Holcomb, curator at The Met’s department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters and organizer of “Jewelry: The Body Transformed,” a stunning, revealing and dazzling exhibition. Rituals of birth, marriage and death, declarations of deep inner beliefs and statements about social and political status all find expression in jewelry. According to Holcomb, “To fully understand the power of jewelry, it is not enough to look at it as miniature sculpture.” Instead, she’s organized an exhibition culled from the Met’s encyclopedic holdings that focuses on jewelry’s interaction with and effects on the body and spirit.

With some 230 glittering works on view, the show sparkles, but it also draws viewers into a contemplative conversation about what we, as humans, say about who we are through what we wear. It’s been this way for millennia. Few of us today need to glance beyond our own selves to find some piece of adornment meant to express personality, remember someone dear, tell time, gather hair, or just beautify. “Jewelry is one of the oldest modes of creative expression — predating even cave painting by tens of thousands of years—and the urge to adorn ourselves is now nearly universal,” said Max Hollein, director of The Met.

Beginning in a darkened gallery filled with clear cases presenting spotlighted, precious objects, the opening vision is both jaw-dropping and subtle. In a hurry to gaze at so much opulence, viewers might miss that the see-through cases, as they stand before them, line up so that foot ornaments, like spectacular hammered gold sandals and toe covers, then lead to waist ornaments, chest and neck pieces, and finally crowns. They reach from ancient Egyptian, to Bronze-age Celtic, to China’s Tang dynasty, to the Chimú people of Peru, to the Dan peoples of the Côte d’Ivoire, to William Harper’s intriguing, painterly 1994 “Brooch: Homage to Cy Twombly and Joseph Cornell” and beyond. Thanks to the Met’s extensive collection and Holcomb’s curatorial creativity, we can conjure, with our mind’s eye, a figure decked out in a whole world’s worth of jewelry.

Such visual wizardry reminds us to pay attention to sight lines, those often missed but evocative placements curators and designers work so hard to engineer, hoping to spark viewers’ imaginations. Here, they’re as brilliant as some of the gems on display. The gold and emerald Crown of the Andes, placed at eye-level in a glass window, overlooks a 12th century sculpted Indian dancer. Each echoes the other’s sensual lines and curves.

Distinct sections present jewelry that ruminates on the Divine Body, the Regal Body, the Transcendent Body, the Alluring Body and the Resplendent Body. They start with Mesopotamian funerary beads from about 2500 BC and take the viewer across time and around the world. We learn that ancient cultures summoned the divine by rattling “noisy” jewelry. In traditional Japanese women’s wear, only the hair was ornamented, with exquisite combs and pins. Medieval rulers announced their power and wealth through crowns, chains and rings. (It should never be hard to spot the king, Holcomb points out in the wall texts.) Swords and hilts spoke of masculinity. Lustrous pearls draw attention to skin tones. A carefully placed brooch or pendant can lead the eye artfully to the décolletage. Masks transform wearers, just as jewels seem to animate sculptures.

Allure and seduction can be put on or taken off with the right kinds of jewelry, and in contemporary culture, jewelry can be used in traditional ways or to make challenging statements. The exhibition concludes with contemporary pieces that speak directly to this moment.

Rich or poor, regardless of gender, decked in gold and platinum or clay beads and feathers, all people have found ways to express notions of wealth, power, spirituality, pride and beauty through adornments of the face, neck, wrists, ears, ankles and more. From dazzling crowns to humble combs, as the show points out, it’s all how you wear it.