What is jewelry? Why do we wear it? What meanings does it convey? At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, an exhibition, “Jewelry: The Body Transformed,” traversing time and space to explore how jewelry acts upon and activates the body it adorns, opened On November 12th.
The exhibition emphasizes the universality of jewelry, including from India—precious objects made for the body, a singular and glorious setting for the display of art. Great jewelry from around the world are 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.
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. 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 will 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,” commented 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.”
If the body is a stage, jewelry is one of its most dazzling performers. Throughout history and across cultures, jewelry has served as an extension and amplification of the body, accentuating it, enhancing it, distorting it, and ultimately transforming it. Jewelry is an essential feature in the acts that make us human, be they rituals of marriage or death, celebrations or battles. At every turn, it expresses some of our highest aspirations.
“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 is being shown along with sculptures, paintings, prints, and photographs that will enrich and amplify the many stories of transformation that jewelry tells; how it served as an extension and amplification of the body, accentuating it, enhancing it, distorting it, and ultimately transforming it.
There is also a riveting Jasmine Bud Necklace (Malligai Arumbu Malai), a marriage necklace made of gold, from the late 19th century, with its origin in Tamil Nadu. Elaborate necklaces of this type were presented by the groom’s family during wedding celebrations of the Chetiar community, a Shaivite mercantile caste, and formed part of the bride’s wealth (stridhan) thereafter.
The necklace was initially part of a dowry given to the bride by the groom at a climactic moment in the ceremony, the three knots ritual. This form of necklace is known as a Kali-Tiru; the elaborate Thali type generally includes a central Shiva and Parvati on a medallion. The four fingers of the central pendant are understood as denoting the four Vedas. There is another Jasmine Bud Necklace, from Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The ornament is inset with ruby and with tapering extensions. A pair of gold royal earrings from India, from the 1st century B.C. are in exhibit.
While splendid jewelry adorns the regal and divine figures represented on early stone sculptures and terracotta plaques, few actual ornaments still exist. It is thought that jewelry was not kept and reused but instead was melted down possibly to avoid transmitting the karma of the former owner.
In addition to clusters and rows of beads, each earring is decorated with a winged lion, and elephant and two vases filled with vegetation. Put on by slipping through a distended earlobe from the back, they are worn with the lion facing the wearer’s cheek and the elephant on the outside.
The place of these earrings in the history of Indian art is assured, not only for their intrinsic beauty, but also because of the light they shed on the superb quality of early gold-smithing in this region.
Early Indian statues of both male and female figures were usually portrayed with elaborate jewelry that sometimes seemed fanciful, since very little comparable jewelry from that period survived. The discovery of this pair of earrings provided the first tangible evidence that the jewelry depicted by the sculptors was in fact based on real exemplars, for a very similar pair is shown on a first century B.C. relief portrait of a Universal Ruler, the Chakravartin, from Jaggayapeta.
These earrings, judging from their material worth, the excellence of craftsmanship, and the use of royal emblems (a winged lion and an elephant) as part of their design, were most probably made as royal commissions. Each earring is composed of two rectangular, budlike forms, growing outward from a central, double-stemmed tendril. The elephant and the lion of repoussé gold are consummately detailed, using granules, snipets of wire and sheet, and individually forged and hammered pieces of gold.
The two pieces are not exactly identical: On the underside they are both decorated with a classical early Indian design of a vase containing three palmettes, but the patterning of the fronds differentiates the two earrings. They are so large and heavy that they must have distended the earlobes and rested on the shoulders of the wearer, like the pair worn by the Chakravartin.
An exquisite collection of jewelry over the ages from cultures globally, including some from India, is the focus of the exhibition ‘Jewelry: The Body Transformed’, which will be on exhibition through February 24, 2019.