NEW YORK – Jewelry: The Body Transformed is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The exhibition features jewelry from all over the world through the ages and asks the viewer a number of questions about this wearable art. What is jewelry? Why do we wear it? What meanings does it convey?
This global conversation about one of the most personal and universal of art forms brings together some 230 objects drawn almost exclusively from The Met collection, including striking pieces from Byzantium and Hellenistic Greece. A dazzling array of headdresses and ear ornaments, brooches and belts, necklaces and rings created between 2600 B.C.E. and the present day are shown along with sculptures, paintings, prints, and photographs that enrich and amplify the many stories of transformation that jewelry tells.
“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. “This exhibition will examine the practice of creating and wearing jewelry through The Met’s global collection, revealing the many layers of significance imbued in this deeply meaningful form of art.” “To fully understand the power of jewelry, it is not enough to look at it as miniature sculpture,” stated Melanie Holcomb, Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. “While jewelry is ubiquitous, the cultures of the world differ widely regarding where on the body it should be worn. By focusing on jewelry’s interaction with—and agency upon—the human body, this exhibition brings in a key element that has been missing in previous studies of the subject.”
The exhibition opens with a dramatic installation that emphasizes the universality of jewelry highlighting precious objects made for the body. Great jewelry from around the world is presented in a radiant display that groups these ornaments according to the part of the body they adorn: head and hair; nose, lips, and ears; neck and chest; arms and hands; and waist, ankles, and feet.
The remaining galleries are organized thematically by the kinds of performances jewelry orchestrates. The Divine Body examines one of the earliest conceptions of jewelry, its link to immortality. Rare head-to-toe ensembles from ancient Egypt that accompanied the elite into the afterlife, as well as items from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, implicated in one of the most mysterious rituals of ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) are on display with the regalia of the rulers of Calima (present-day Colombia), who were lavishly covered in sheets of gold.
The Regal Body examines the use of jewelry throughout history to assert rank and status. Among the examples on display are exquisite sapphires and pearls from Byzantium, finely wrought gold from the elites of Hellenistic Greece, and ivory and bronze from the Royal Courts of Benin. “Your might is made known by the throne, and by the tiara, and by the pearl-spangled robe,” a court official wrote in the time of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos and quoted on the wall of the exhibition for the section entitled Stagecraft and Statecraft.
The Transcendent Body focuses on how jewelry is used to traverse the temporal and spiritual realms. This section celebrates jewelry’s power to conjure spirits, appease gods, and invoke ancestors. Sculpted images and finely-wrought jewelry from India underscore the active role of gold ornaments in Hindu worship. Adornments from Coastal New Guinea, splendidly fashioned from shell and feathers, speak to jewelry’s capacity to channel the spiritual well-being of the wearer.
The connection between Stagecraft and Statecraft is highlighted in one section of the exhibition which quotes from a Byzantine court official from the time of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Photo by Eleni Sakellis
The Alluring Body explores how jewelry engenders desire. Woodblock prints and period ornaments convey the ways in which hair dressing indicated a courtesan’s availability in Edo Japan. Photographs and spectacular jewels highlight the eroticism of pearls in the Victorian era and beyond. Jewelry designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, Art Smith, Elsa Peretti, and Shaun Leane document how contemporary artists push the limits of glamour, courting danger and even pain.
The Resplendent Body shows the marriage of material and technique for the purpose of ostentation. Why wear jewelry, if not to be seen? Examples include the opulent adornment of the Mughals; the aesthetic of accumulation in the gold and silver jewelry of the Akan and Fon peoples of West Africa; and the elegant designs of such legendary jewelry houses as Castellani, Lalique, and Tiffany & Co. Contemporary jewelry makers, including Peter Chang, Joyce J. Scott, and Daniel Brush, who question and re-imagine notions of luxury and adornment are also celebrated in the exhibition.
With new acquisitions, acknowledged masterpieces, and recent discoveries from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jewelry: The Body Transformed, on view through February 24, 2019, tests assumptions about jewelry in the past and present. The exhibition also confirms that these precious objects are among the most potent vehicles of cultural memory.
Pearls and gemstones adorn these bracelets from Byzantium. Photo by Eleni Sakellis