The idea for this project came from a picture I saw of a diadem from Khokhlach Burial Mound, which currently resides at the Hermitage Museum in the former Soviet Union. The diadem, which dates to the first century CE, has deer processing to the tree of life around the upper edge. The trees have little gold leaves that move like charms on a bracelet and, having seen it the first time, my thought was it would look great done in beads. And so I started a quest to see if there were similar head ornaments in Medieval Europe, and if so, what they looked like in comparison.
I was both pleased and disappointed by what I had found. Pleased in that I found several descriptions of medieval head ornaments similar to the diadem and disappointed in that I just couldnt find very many pictures. For example, a list of the jewels taken from Countess Yolande of Bar in 1362 France lists "a horned head-dress embroidered with pearls as large as peas, another on which single large pearls alternated with four small pearls, a hat or chaplet of red velvet worked with a vine pattern in large pearls, another chaplet or coif of threaded pearls, some as large as beans, and a chaplet embroidered with pearls." Yolande also had a store of "eighteen balas-rubies, some pierced and some for piercing, three sapphires and thirteen strings of pearls." Clearly this woman was well off to have had so many head coverings but the descriptions are valuable to me because they show a marked distinction between bead embroidery and bead weaving.
Its difficult to tell sometimes from portraits what a headdress is made from and what construction methods were used. Few of these items exist today. The reason for this is because time is not as kind to fabric and thread as it is to metal. A crown attributed to St. Henry and which dates to the 14th or 15th century was repaired in 1653. It consists of a brass circlet covered with white silk and gold braid with jewels set in the embroidery of acorns and flowers. On the top is a wreath of lilies, wound at the back with white silk and the front edge is decorated with brass spirals, pearls and jet. Probably in the 16th century, four arches were added, made of brass with green silk wound around them. These arches have on them many flowers comprised of silk, pearls and other beads, and wire. Looking at the over two hundred Crowns pictures in this book, I saw maybe three that were both period and fabric-covered metal. Though from examining paintings and period inventories I get the impression far many more objects of this type existed.
Visually, this piece I created looks much like the one in the painting Eulalia with open book, crowned by angels from Venice around 1470. The painting shows a crown with a wreath of flowers on it and six lily flowers pointing straight up. And from period inventories we know that in 1341 Jeanne of Brittany, Dame de Cassel, lent her daughter Yolande two gold crowns to wear for her wedding. The heavier had six large fleurons and six small ones fashioned like small trees, and studded with pearls, sapphires, balas-rubies, and emeralds, while the other had eight large cross-shaped fleurons, and eight small trefoil-shaped fleurons, and was studded with pearls, balas-rubies and emeralds. In 1396, when Isabelle of France married Richard II of England she was given a circlet of gold and precious stones in the fashion of a garden. These items certainly sound as if they resemble the item I created.
Another fabric and metal-based crown is that of Abbess Anna von Weggarten (1435-39) and was found in 1629 when the tomb was opened. It is Austrian.
The use of silver and silver-gilt was more popular than gold in some areas. In Bosnia in 1327 the government regulated the quality of silver and the price of silver gilt. The majority of the jewelry there was made of silver and there was little use of precious stones and only moderate use of pearls. The chief items manufactured in the city of Ragusan were silver buttons and beads. And we know the principal traffic of mercers everywhere was in stuffs, articles of dress, in thread, in precious stones and seed-pearls for embroidery. In 1478 a mercer of Lyons had, among other things, a set of cornelian paternosters, three strings of cornelian beads, and twenty-eight chalcedony beads.
Chaplets of silk riband could be decorated with gold beads, jeweled with rubies, emeralds, doublets, pearls, and grains of gold. Only the best and most costly chaplets were of gold, less expensive ones were of silver or silver-gilt. In 1344 Florence a woman was accused of wearing a circlet of silver-gilt of fifteen pieces shaped as vines branches with leaves which was against the sumptuary laws. In the late thirteenth century great ladies and their waiting-women might themselves weave and decorate the ribands and garlands but frequently the descriptions of silk or stuff was really little more than a lining to a metal chaplet. Chaplets might be of gold wire, probably filigree, or they might be made of threaded or interlaced pearls. Again in 1362 Yolande was robbed of a chaplet all of pearls all interlaced on thread and a great quantity of pearls all as large as beans. And a gold chaplet of 1467 was made of branches and garnished with several balas-rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and pearls, and was evidently a composition of the centurys favorite motif of lopped boughs, sometimes known as the dry-branch motif. King Stephen V of Hungary (d.1272) had in his tomb a richly jeweled gold crown set with trefoil fleurons, and between them are lesser fleurons composed of triple vine leaves; they are in fact the heads of the pins that fasten the hinges of the eight plaques of which the crown is composed. Queen Elizabeth of Hungary had in 1383 a silver-gilt coronal which had tall Gothic fleurons, between which are motifs of a stylized branching tree surmounted by a small head of a king, whose crown is tipped with three pearls.
And when John became Duke of Normandy in 1199, the archbishop put on his head a gold circlet decorated along the upper rim with gold roses.
From the descriptions it would seem that there were headdresses with trees on the top, headdresses woven of pearls, and headdresses with precious stones. Everything I needed to conclude that this coronal could have been made in period in Europe.
When I first started weaving the band it was with five rows, I determined it wasnt wide enough and it is really difficult to weave with an odd number. I used silver beads and pearls woven on nemo. The silk thread I have wasnt strong enough for me and I have been unable to locate linen. I like nemo Im familiar with it and I trust its strength so thats usually what I use. It is important to note here that pearls in period generally had much larger holes in them than pearls today. Larger holes mean larger needles and larger thread. Today pearl holes are drilled so that little more than a beading needle will fit through the hole, and nothing fits through the eye of a beading needle except nemo (which is a flat synthetic thread). In period it would not have been unusual to thread a bead using a bent piece of hair, then thread the needle, work the stitch, take off the needle, and thread another bead using the hair. This is very time consuming but would be the method required to string these pearls using a strong enough period thread. Since the relationship between thread and pearl holes is really the issue here, I chose to keep the same proportions rather than use a larger thread.
Halfway through weaving the band I hit my first roadblock. This wasnt going to stand up without support. And so I designed a support, drew pictures, and set out for a friend who could make this thing (which is just a length of brass with six little poles soldered onto it). In the mean time I continued working on the band. Then I used the same stitch (peyote) on the garnet tree trunks. I chose garnet, peridot, and rock crystal for my trees because thats what I could afford in the right colors. It would have been nice to do the trees in ruby and emerald (yah like that could ever happen) and balas-ruby is difficult to find. But peridot, rock crystal, and garnet were used in period. The treetops are just stones twisted into wire; just as you can see was done on the reliquary crown. I used plastic-coated wire in silver so it wouldnt turn black (as the silver beads have started to do) but it works just the same as my silver-colored iron wire which would have been used in period. The rock crystals are simply cut in a manner I have seen in European objects dating prior to 1600 and are just mounted on a wire which is wrapped around the brass pole (as opposed to being soldered which I am not equipped to handle). The leaves are then stitched into the base and then the rock crystals are mounted on a wire wrapped around the support pole.
The only part that gave me any trouble was the final assembly. Several months ago I purchased some velvet ribbon in two colors, a yard of each, exactly the same width as the brass band, to use as a backing. I couldnt decide if it was better to match the hair or the headdress. I decided it was better to match the headdress but it wasnt wide enough to join to pearl edges with the brass in between. I must not have been thinking that day! So I cut the yard in half and sewed the two pieces together but then it was short three inches. Thats why the extra dark piece is in there (and I couldnt find a replacement ribbon) but if anyone asks its there to mark the back from the front so you can see the difference with minimal light. Sewing it on was the worst part of the whole project my thread kept getting stuck in the treetops requiring way to much energy. But the trees had to be on first in order to sew the backing around them, and I anchored them to the inside of the fabric. The tree tops shouldnt get caught in the hair because they sit high enough up, I have found that (with my hair) if the hair is unbound it wont get caught even if I were to put the coronal on up-side-down.
Overall I think the trees stand up to far like little twigs and the whole thing needs the deer (like on the original diadem) or something else between the trees for it to look right to my eye. Its probably just me not being use to starring at these things so much. The coronal would be suitable for a court baroness (which is what it was made for) within the Society but I anticipate adding embattlements because she is also a viscountess and I think that will solve the problem.
If I were to ever do another one of these I would use a much lighter gauge of brass. It only needs to support the beads, not make the whole thing indestructible. The beads themselves are all natural stone, pearl, or sterling silver. There is no glass and I think the stone beads themselves weigh more than I had anticipated so the combination of the beads and the brass make for to much weight.
Picture and description from the Hermitage Museum website.
Medieval European Jewellery by Ronald Lightbown. Page 47.
History of the Crown Jewels of Europe by Lord Edward Twining. Page 28.
Close follower of Antonello Da Messina. Forti Collection, Venice probably about 1470. From a book on Venetian Paintings.
Medieval European Jewellery by Ronald Lightbown. Page 69.
Medieval European Jewellery by Ronald Lightbown. Page 69.
History of the Crown Jewels of Europe by Lord Edward Twining. Page 5. Not fully described but Ive included the picture it is on the table, not in this packet.
Medieval European Jewellery by Ronald Lightbown. Page 52.
Medieval European Jewellery by Ronald Lightbown. Page 53.
It does not state how they were interlaced but Peyote is an easy stitch and was most likely the stitch used based on my research. It is impossible to be sure at this time (you cant see the stitches in a photograph) but Im certain it will be proven so in time. Peyote stitch involves adding one bead, going through a bead and adding another and follows in the same way that basic sewing does.
Medieval European Jewellery by Ronald Lightbown. Page 114.
Medieval European Jewellery by Ronald Lightbown. Page 117.
Medieval European Jewellery by Ronald Lightbown. Page 128.
Medieval European Jewellery by Ronald Lightbown. Page 128.
Medieval European Jewellery by Ronald Lightbown. Page 130.
From an embroidery text of the 1700s. Examining period objects makes it clear that in some instances this technique would have to have been used. Other non-needle techniques for stringing included waxing the thread or using a wire crin. A piece of course hair works rather well and I have used the technique frequently. Its still the best way to thread a needle.
History of the Crown Jewels of Europe by Lord Edward Twining. Page 603. Garnets are listed on an emerald crown belonging to Blanche of Anjou in a document dated 1313.
See a picture of it here.