Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Constantinian pendant
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This pendant dates to the fourth century, and has at its center a gold double solidus of Constantine I. Coins in the Byzantine period displayed the emperor in all his official power, repeatedly and at all levels of society. The emblazoned coin embodied the emperor’s masculine authority, even if, as in the case of this pendant, it was to be used in jewelry worn by women. The legend DN CONSTANTINUS MAX AUG appears in its obverse, while the Caesars, Crispus and Constantine II (sons of Constantine I), in consular attire and the legends CRISPUS ET CONSTANTINUS NOB CAES COSS II and SIRM(ium) emblazon the reverse. This pendant is a part of a group of jewelry objects sold at Christie’s (London, 1970) that included three other pendants, a bracelet, and four fragments from a necklace. In the late Roman empire, coin pendants were popular, and this continued into the Byzantine period. A circular shape was typical, but sometimes they were hexagonal, as are two of the other pendants in this group. Because the solidus in this pendant was struck at Sirmium in 324 and Crispus fell from grace and was murdered in the summer of 326, the necklace to which this pendant belonged must have been created between those dates.

    Beginning with the pendant in the top right and continuing clockwise, the first bust is a nude young man with curls and round features. Number two is a togate boy sporting a Trajanic hairstyle--short and cropped--and the third is another nude male, this time with brushed up forelocks familiar from representations of Alexander the Great. Number four is a female wearing a chiton and either a headdress or a hairstyle with three protrusions, and is thus possibly Athena in a Corinthian helmet. The fifth bust is another, potentially nude, male with an elongated neck and short, curly hair. In the sixth and final tondo is the bust of an older female with parted hair who wears a jeweled diadem and a chiton.

    Although coin necklaces became popular beginning in the reign of Septimius Severus (AD 193-211), in the Late Antique period, gold necklaces featuring multiple coin pendants were an ostentatious show of wealth. This example, among the others preserved today, displays the high level of skill required to craft these pieces. At the beginning of the fourth century, with the advent of the Constantinian era, frames for these coin necklaces increased in scale while their openwork designs become more elaborate. Bruhn believes this pendant to have originally belonged to an elaborate necklace with the three other pendants sold at Christie’s in 1970. Two of the pendants, this one included, were circular, while the two remaining were hexagonal. Each pendant’s layout resembles a six-rayed star, itself serving as a virtual matrix for the placement of six tondos: at each “point” of the star is a tiny, three-dimensional portrait in three-quarters or frontal view that extends beyond its individual beaded frame.

    Deppert-Lippitz, although she agrees that this pendant originally belonged to a necklace with its three Christie’s counterparts, suggests that an octagonal pendant now in Cleveland functioned as the centerpiece of said necklace. The pendant under discussion hung on the right of the octagonal centerpiece. If she is correct, a necklace of this size and scope, featuring five portraits of Constantine I, would be extremely significant, though scholars as yet do not know where the necklace and its pendants were made. Its owner would have been a person extremely close to the imperial family or, indeed, a member of the imperial family itself. Deppert-Lippitz posits the dowager empress Helena as the most likely imperial owner.

    Likewise unclear is the significance of the busts surrounding the coin, both on this pendant and on its three or, according to Deppert-Lippitz, four, siblings. The busts have been variously interpreted: some scholars suggest that they possess merely decorative qualities, others an astronomical meaning, and still others, a function as portraits. This pendant, Bruhn and Deppert-Lippitz believe, combines legendary and mythological figures. Despite Constantine’s recognition of Christianity and his eventual conversion to this religion, classical and mythological themes remained popular throughout the Roman empire. Deities such as Zeus, Athena, Apollo, and Artemis were favored because their representations in literature and in art bore moral implications. For instance, Zeus indicated “rulership,” Artemis, “chastity,” and Athena, “wisdom.” Thus, the figures in tondo could reasonably represent mythological figures, and would not be inappropriate on imperial jewelry. Deppert-Lippitz argues that “For a well-educated Roman of the early fourth century, the single busts, the particular composition of the group and its arrangement, and possibly even the combination of the busts on all five pendants” of the original necklace “would have been enough to understand a whole story.” The meaning(s) of the busts on this pendant, then, may remain opaque until considered alongside the busts of its three or four siblings.

    The central coin in this pendant, on the other hand, most certainly depicts a variation of Constantine’s typical, later portraiture. Here, the emperor appears in profile, wearing a crown of sun-rays--an attribute of Apollo. This portrait is indicative of Constantine’s shift away from the imagery of the Tetrarchy and back into classical styles. In the Tetrarchic period, imperial portraiture tended to render the emperor more of an icon than an individual, the visual culture emphasizing the emperor’s “office over the individuality of its holder.” Constantine’s earliest coin portraits (AD 306-307) follow the style of Tetrarchic imagery, but, rapidly, the emperor created for himself a unique program of portraiture that evoked Augustan and Trajanic themes, and it is this image that is emblazoned on later coins, as well as on gems and three-dimensional portraiture. This new Constantian type shows the emperor as youthful yet mature and clean-shaven, indicative of a shift to classical themes. Appearing vigorous and imperial, the masculine Constantine would have radiated power from the center of a woman’s necklace.

  • Source: Images d'art website
  • Rights: Shared publicly by the Images d'art website
  • Subject (See Also): Coins Jewelry Politics Power Roman Emperors
  • Geographic Area: Eastern Europe
  • Century: 4
  • Date: 325
  • Related Work: Deppert-Lippitz, Barbara. “Possible Reconstruction of Necklace with Five Pendants and Six Spacers.” In “Late Roman Splendor: Jewelry from the Age of Constantine,” Page 57 [requires JSTOR subscription]. Cleveland Studies in the History of Art 1: 30-71;
    Hexagonal gold pendant set with a medallion of Constantine, fourth century. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. Cat. no. 5;
    Circular gold pendant set with a medallion of Constantine, fourth century. Musee du Louvre, Paris;
    Hexagonal gold pendant set with a medallion of Constantine, fourth century. The British Museum, London;
    Roman necklace with imitation gold coin pendants, early third century;
    AV Solidus (4.52 gm) of Constantine I. Antioch mint. Struck 324-325 CE.
  • Current Location: Paris, Musée du Louvre, Bj 2280
  • Original Location: Sirmium [near Belgrade], Pannonia [coin not necklace]
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Metalwork; Jewelry;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Gold;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 9.2 [diameter]//
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