This Byzantine Madonna comes from the 8th century AD and is kept today in the Church of S. Marco in Florence. Image courtesy of Umberto Fedele.
This post is part of a series on gold as currency that originates from the study of mineral resources done for the book "The Plundered Planet". Previous posts were: The Physics of Money and The Strategy of Dragons
Take a moment to look at the image above; a splendid Byzantine Madonna that you can admire today in the Church of S. Marco, in Florence, Italy (the original mosaic goes back to the 8th century AD, and it is within the central rectangle, the figures outside were painted in later times). I was looking at that image just a few weeks ago when I was suddenly struck by a small revelation: something I had never realized before.
We see, here, a noble woman of high rank, as shown by her elaborate dress and jewelry. But notice one thing: although she is portrayed against a golden background, she herself wears almost no gold - except, perhaps, a couple of bracelets - they may be, actually, buckles. All her jewelry seem to be pearls and other stones that may be agate or carnelian.
Maybe you would think that the Mother of Jesus shouldn't wear gold, but that may be just a modern way of seeing things. In the same church, just nearby, you can see a 16th century sculpted Madonna waring a heavy gold crown - the perception of what was proper to wear for the Holy Mother had changed a lot in a few centuries.
Besides, not wearing gold jewels seems to have been typical of all Roman noble women, not just of the Mother of Christ. Look at the image below: Empress Theodora of Byzantium, wife of Justinian 1st, who lived in the 6th century AD. (image from the Church of San Vitale, in Ravenna, Italy)
See? the powerful empress is shown against a golden background and there may be some gold in her crown, but probably just as a support for her elaborate set of pearl strings and for the precious stones she wears: red agate, green malachite and, perhaps, blue opal.
Would you like to have one more example? Here is another Roman empress, this time truly Roman, not Byzantine. Here is the only realistic portrait we have of Galla Placidia, who reigned in the Western Roman Empire during the 5th century AD. (portrait from a gold medallion kept in Ravenna)
Here, the only color we can see is gold, but it is clear that the Empress is wearing pearls, not gold.
So, it seems that in Roman times, wearing gold ornaments for a lady of high rank was considered somewhat tacky. And there are probably good reasons for that: the relation of ancient Romans with gold was completely different from what it is today. You see, for rich Romans, gold was relatively common. It was currency, it was money, and it was a commodity to be use for commerce. As such, it wasn't supposed to be something "noble;" no, it had its place in coffers and safes, in the form of coins. It was not supposed to be worn as crowns or necklaces - that would be bad taste, as it would be for us to flaunt around a stack of $ 100 bills. Pearls and precious stones were considered (and actually were) rarer and more valuable; indeed "nobler" than gold, something fit for a lady of high rank to wear.
It also makes sense that, in medieval times, the perception of what gold was to be used for had completely changed. The concept of "golden crown," an ornament that kings and queens would wear, originated from that time; when it was something supposed to be worn also by the Mother of Christ in the iconography of the time.
The reason for that? Rather simple: in medieval times gold had ceased to be a currency. With the depletion of the Spanish mines that had created the Roman wealth, the Empire had collapsed and all the gold had vanished: spent or stolen abroad, or hoarded underground. With it, golden coins had disappeared; currency had disappeared altogether. Only in relatively late Middle Ages, Europe could create a new currency system based on silver. But during the whole period, gold remained a rare and expensive item to be treasured and that could be worn without feeling tacky - if you were rich enough to have some (and powerful enough to be able to keep it!).
The oscillating way of seeing gold; as a currency medium and as an ornament, can be seen also in a fashion that existed already in late Roman times but that became more common in Medieval times; that of using gold coins as decorative elements in jewelry. The example below is the "Fosbrook Pendant", presently at the British Museum.
And in our times? Well, it seems that our perception of gold is more like that of Medieval Times, rather than of Roman times, because we don't feel that it is bad taste for a woman to wear gold jewels. And that makes sense because for us gold is not a currency; not something to be used for commerce and hence it is more "noble" than it would otherwise be. But we have much more gold than was available in medieval times in Europe and so gold jewels are not only for queens and empresses; probably, today most people belonging to the "middle class" have at least some gold at home in the form of jewelry.
That, of course, begs the question of why we don't use gold as currency any more, even though we seem to have plenty of it. But that's a complicated question to answer and, for the time being, this discussion just gives us some idea of how subtle, complex, and multifaceted is our relation with gold, a true wonder metal that has fascinated our ancestors for millennia and still fascinates us.