Russian Artistic Movements Pre-Mongol Pre-Mongol Russian Jewellery

Pre-Mongol Russian Jewellery

Period: 9th–13th centuries

Men and women have always worn works of jewellery, believing in their ability to protect the wearers from the forces of evil. In Kievan Rus, gold symbolised the eternal light and divine wisdom. Silver stood for purity and chastity. The most popular works of jewellery among the Ancient Slavs were temporal rings attached to the female headgear.

Gold temporal rings were decorated with twisted fine wire called filigree or skan – from the Old Russian word skat, meaning to “twile” or “twist.” Minute grains of gold – known as zern or granulation – were soldered onto the filigree ornamentation. Both techniques were common in Russia before the Mongol invasion and demanded great artistry and precision.

The earliest surviving works of gold and silverware decorated with filigree and granulation date from the ninth and tenth centuries. They were found by archaeologists during excavations of the sites of medieval Russian towns and steppe burrows. The form of the temporal ring – rhombus, diamond, bead or star – helps to trace its ethnic background.

Temporal pendants (kolty) were worn by women. Like pendant rings, they hung on ribbons or chains from the headgear. The hollow insides of the pendants were filled with fragrant grasses or fabrics dipped in perfumes. The woman wearing them exuded the aroma of wild flowers.

Shoulder mantles were worn by grand princes at their coronations. Some mantles were decorated with precious stones, which formed the decorative frames of central medallions depicting the Virgin Mary and Orthodox saints. The intertwining filigree patterns created a rich and intricate ornamental design.

The images on temporal pendants and shoulder mantles were executed in the technique of cloisonné (partitioned) enamel. This technique came to Russia from the Byzantine Empire, following the adoption of Christianity in 988, and had an enormous influence on the subsequent development of Russian art and culture.

Cloisonné enamel required great mastery and precision. Each colour in the enamel pattern required its own isolated cell, made from fine gold wire. After the wires were soldered onto the surface of the work, each partition was filled with enamel. Russian jewellers only employed pure, unmixed colours. The work was then baked and polished until it shone. The fine gold wires remained visible between the bright patches of multi-coloured enamel.

Works of jewellery dating from before the Mongol invasion are of an extremely high artistic standard. Silversmiths enjoyed a virtuoso command of such diverse techniques as embossing, fretwork, filigree, granulation and cloisonné enamel. The development of Russian culture, however, was brought to an abrupt halt by the Mongol invasion.

After Staraya Ryazan fell in 1237, Tatar-Mongol hordes swept through the rest of the country, burning and pillaging towns and enslaving the population. The Mongol invasion did irreparable damage to the history of Russian jewellery. Many works of applied art were destroyed and the secrets of the cloisonné enamel technique were lost.

Novgorod suffered less than the other Russian lands during the Mongol invasion, which helped to preserve the local traditions. Novgorod was a feudal republic governed by a common council of free citizens called the veche. The greater degree of political democracy in Novgorod was reflected in its artistic produce. The local silversmiths mostly made inexpensive decorations – miniature icons, crosses and amulets – within the means of virtually all classes of society.

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