Beauty and horror

Large vintage shell gem of the Bethlehemite infanticide, c. 1950

Jewellery with gemstones made of shell or layered stone often directly recieves works of fine art. Paintings and copper engravings lend themselves to be repeated in the medium of the cut relief, as well as in the medium of the micromosaic. Thus it is not only the ever-popular goddesses of antiquity that we find in profile depiction on the brooches and pendants of this genre, but sometimes also quite different, elaborately realized scenes. The shell cameo here, in a setting of high-carat gold, takes up a theme that has always inspired artists since the earliest times. The theme is terrifying: it concerns the Bethlehem infanticide, i.e. the killing of all male newborns in Bethlehem at the instigation of Herod in order to eliminate Christ, the foretold "King of the Jews" from the face of the world. That this did not succeed, but that divine power proved superior to the commands of worldly rulers, is the comforting side of this story. For the artists, however, the scene was interesting for quite another reason. For the depiction of the fighting men and pleading women provided an opportunity to depict the human body in ever new, artistic poses and views. All the great masters, from Giotto to Raphael, Rubens and Rembrandt, dealt with this theme. The artists of the Renaissance and Mannerism in particular took the opportunity to depict naked bodies in turns and poses trained on antiquity and, in the case of the female figures, to fill pictorial ideas from the realm of the saints with new life. The master of this gem also draws on a wealth of material in his depiction of horror, transforming it into a scene of beauty and art. For example, on the right edge of the picture we see a mother and child, who is obviously modelled on the Virgin Mary. The rusher in the middle presents himself as a naked back figure and spreads his arms in such a way that we can still trace the structure of the muscles and the back in detail. The kneeling women in the left foreground, however, merge with their flowing robes into a single, moving unity, in which dynamism finds admirable expression through materiality. The gem was probably created in Italy in the years immediately after the Second World War. The details of the cut are of high quality and worthy of admiration. We were particularly attracted by the tension between subject and execution, which finds a point of contact for art even in the greatest horror.

The predecessors of today's brooches were brooches that were worn as coat clasps. These pieces of jewellery resembled a safety pin and served to hold garments together at the shoulders. These brooches also announced the status of their owner and as early as the Bronze Age they were decorated with figures and ornate. The Romans designed their brooches so splendidly in some cases that luxury taxes were levied on them. The fibula - and since the Middle Ages a similarly designed piece of jewellery called a Fürspann - ensured the correct fit of clothing for almost 3,000 years. However, at the latest since the invention of the button, the fibula and the Fürspann became increasingly superfluous in their function - and were now able to develop into purely decorative objects, initially at the court of Louis XIV in the 17th century.

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You can rely on our years of experience in the trade and our expertise as a professional art historians for reviews of the antique jewellery. As a member of various trader organisations and the British Society of Jewellery Historians, we remain committed to the highest possible degree of accuracy. In our descriptions, we always also indicate any signs of age and defects and never hide them in our photos – this saves you from any unpleasant surprises when your package arrives.

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We want you to be 100% satisfied! That’s why we examine, describe and photograph all our jewellery with the utmost care.

If for any reason you are still not satisfied, contact us and we will find a mutual solution immediately. Regardless, you can return any item within 30 days and we will refund you the full purchase price.

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