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Essay: The wearing of cross jewellery through history

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  • Published: 21 February 2022*
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  • Words: 791 (approx)
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Cross jewels were and still are amongst the most commonly worn types of religious jewellery . “The cross has been worn as a sign of faith and a protective device since the 4th century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. With the emergence of Protestantism in the 16th century, it became a sign of the Catholic faith specifically. According to legend, St Helena (255- 330AD) found in the Holy Land the cross on which Christ was crucified. Helena took a significant portion of fragments the so-called True Cross, which were much sought after as relics. Cross pendants often had an image of the crucified Christ or contained relics. Alternatively they could be set with gemstones, full of symbolism and superstition. Rubies and red stones were often associated with the blood of Christ.”

Many religious and secular orders incorporated crosses into their emblems, throughout the centuries, sometimes using crosses of particular form, for example Greek or Latin. Members wore these insignia as a sign of belonging and commitment and as a mark of distinction. For most people, devotional jewels expressed faith and piety, often they were linked to a particular saint. Each saint symbolic of hope and other attributions.”

Symbolism of the cross transcended centuries and continents. During the Renaissance period, “Christian imagery remained extremely strong and devotional pieces continued in widespread use” (Philips, C. pg 36). The religious symbols conveyed a personal message, moral concepts or the hopes of the wearer. “A wealth of internationally recognisable symbols were used to represent Deity and Christian virtues” (Philips, C. pg 36). Religion often overlapped with superstition. Across Europe, different interpretations and designs of the cross could be seen, worn by the middle and upper classes, but also peasants. In 17th century German Mother’s wore a ‘Wehenkreuz’ (a labour cross) during childbirth, which offered protection during what was then a dangerous feat for any woman. Women also wore jewellery decorated with The Virgin, as she was the symbol of motherhood. During the Byzantine empire, AD 500 – 700, Men and children would also wear a cross, be it on a bracelet or chain, which again acted as a protective device and a sign of faith. People sought protection against illness and ill fortune by wearing a cross, image of a saint or a relic containing piece of jewellery .

Most people believed in the Christian promise of life after death and hoped that humanity and godliness would win them eternal life. Personal jewels often reflected piety and devotions. The earlier crucifixes’ displaying the body of Christ were replaced by elaborate gem-set crosses. These were worn as pendants on necklaces, made of ribbon or attachments on rivieres necklaces, and rosaries, or attached directly onto the dress .

From 1820 – 1840, romanticism, sentiment and symbolism in jewellery flourished through Europe. It was the Napoleonic influence of the symbolism of gemstones, names and mottos spelt out with the initial letter of appropriate gemstones that quickly spread. ‘Regard’ and ‘dearest’ rings, brooches and pendants were incredibly popular. However, “the most fashionable pendant shape at the time was that of the cross” (Bennett, D. & Mascetti, D. 1989, pg 84). Crosses were taking different form, they became more stylised and elaborate, not a simple as they once were. Still symbolising the Christian faith, the cross pendant was being adapted to suit current trends and fashions. The Latin, Greek and Maltese crosses were the pendants of choice, with the Maltese being particularly favoured in England, particularly when set with six diamonds, or carved in hardstones. The popular Latin cross design with gold cantille and gem set, often came en suite . Peasant jewellery, a global term, was usually made by local crafts men in naïve tradition, uninfluenced by current fashions, but certainly always encompassing the cross or some religious symbolism. The Industrial revolution in the 19th century however, lead to standardisation of jewellery.

In England, after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, the cross soon became to represent mourning and remembrance. Jet, bog oak, pearls, ivory were primarily the materials of choice , each were used at the different stages of mourning. Often conventional motifs were used to convey meanings representing inevitable end of love in death, tears and life after death.

In present times, the universal symbol of the cross has not been lost it still largely represents Christianity, not just Catholicism as it once did during the Reformation in the 16th century. Today, however, society sees that wearing a cross pendant can also be a personal statement of current fashions, trends or decoration as well as a declaration of a persons faith. Pendant crosses worn for adornment were much in vogue a generation ago, but are now seldom worn. They had been used for centuries past in the old world (Willard Benson. G, pg 92).


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