Before photography was able to capture images for celebrity profiles and glossy ads, fine art – mostly paintings – was the only artistic medium in which jewellery fashions appeared. Most of these were portraits in which the subject carefully selected the jewellery to be worn. These jewellery depictions are iconography in their own right, as a member of the aristocracy who caught a glimpse of the Portrait Painting Gallery the trinkets might copy the person’s style. It doubled as a personal memento and subtle advertising for the style of the wearer.
Women in the Renaissance period, a time when portraits were in particularly high demand, wore jewellery nearly every day. The ornamentation seen in portraits, however, is often more modest and simpler than what would be seen at a social gathering, like a teardrop pearl on a chain or a plain engagement ring. Chokers with a few beads and dangling charms were common, as they complemented the high-necked and embellished clothing style that made long strands unnecessary. Large gold crucifixes reflected the pious sentiment of the Elizabethan period. The renditions of gold and gems in paintings from this period were amazingly lifelike, attributed to the fact that most painters doubled as goldsmiths to make ends meet.
Earrings are understood to have existed in Europe beginning around the 7th century. But they weren’t very common, hence their rare appearance in art until around the 16th century, when they became more commonplace. Even then, they were shadowed by items like religious pendants. An earring appears prominently in Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, also known as “the Dutch Mona Lisa,” dated circa 1667. The subject of the painting is unknown and the Portrait Painting Gallery in Barga probably never widely viewed in its immediate time. It is a particularly unconventional portrait, lacking the usual modesty that would hide a woman’s ears. Art historians speculate that Vermeer shared a personal relationship with the subject.
Noblemen and royalty alike commissioned portraits mainly to mark special occasions – for a duchess, this could be her wedding day; for the king and queen, it might be one every year they reigned. In a portrait circa 1530, Catherine of Aragon is shown wearing two large pieces of gold and rubies. One pendant is a symmetrical cross with diamond edges that sweeps her collarbone, and the other is a heart shape edged with circular florets that hangs low. Two portraits of unknown women dated three years later are shown wearing one necklace similar to each of them. However subtle their influence may have been, portrait paintings had some hand in designing the styles of the times. Renaissance festival performers and period enthusiasts strive to reproduce the bodily decoration of such portraits with intense accuracy.