On my recent holiday, it almost seemed that jewellery was following me around the Mediterranean – not that I was complaining about it! Possibly the pinnacle of this trend was the day we arrived in Mykonos to find the Archaeological Museum we were planning to visit anyway (first pottery depiction of the Trojan Horse, anyone?) turned out to be almost completely filled with an exhibition on Cycladic jewellery from prehistory to the present day.
The exhibition, titled ‘Vanity’, was laid out in chronological order spanning a very impressive 7 millennia. It was also, as the exhibition leaflet proudly proclaimed, a ‘meta-exhibition’, with the museum itself becoming a giant jewellery box. It all sounded pretty good to me, and that was before we even saw the exhibits.
The interpretation was excellent from the off, with all the exhibits in these gorgeously lit boxes with draws to pull out and read more:
There was also some extra reading if you knew Greek:
I won’t cover everything we saw because there were hundreds of pieces, but here are a few highlights.
We started with Early Bronze Age jewellery, most of which came from Naxos. Like many of the items on display, the majority of these early pieces were found as grave goods, highlighting the important role of appearance and adornment in early Cycladic society. As you can see below, semi-precious beads were a particular favourite. Oh, and check out the phallus charm on the left-hand side; some things never change…
Pins/fibulae and diadems were also popular during this period:
After this we hit the Middle Cycladic Period, where coral beads from the Eastern Mediterranean were all the rage (the suggestion being that their owners believed them to have exotic, special properties):
The Late Bronze Age gave us this absolutely gorgeous necklace made of gold and white glass beads in the shape of lotus flowers. Interestingly, these beads were made in a mould, hinting at a growing market for and mass production of such items. In fact, the display called these shapes ‘standardised’ – the Cyclades were definitely modernising!
The Geometric period, where the Mycenaean world collapsed and was taken over by Greek culture, pins and hair wires were the order of the day. The pins in the bottom left-hand corner are also from Thera, which I was overly excited about. (No, I’m not being sarcastic; we visited a couple of years ago and I was really excited to see some of the artefacts that aren’t at the site.)
Much to my delight, almost all of the artefacts from the Classical period, including little human and animal amulets, were from Thera:
A couple of centuries later, the Hellenic world had completely changed Cycladic jewellery, bringing exquisitely detailed pieces made from gold, pearls, and semi-precious stones. In fact, jewellery got so ornate that Pliny and Seneca complained about the amount being spent on it… Many of the pieces in the exhibition were from Delos, only found because the residents were forced to flee from the pirates of Athenodorus at the end of the 1st century BCE, and hid some of their gems before they left.
Also, here’s Aphrodite riding a goat:
During the Roman period, the Cyclades were flooded with gold hoops, rings, and bird amulets, much like the rest of the Mediterranean, although the Hellenic styles didn’t disappear overnight:
Sadly for The Goblin and I, the Cycladic Middle Ages weren’t enormously well-represented, because of the limited excavation activity around this period; understandable given the amount of ancient history there is to explore in this part of the world.
There was another reason for the lack of medieval Cycladic jewellery on display: the predominance of Byzantine Christianity, which emphasised austerity and inner beauty. However, as the display highlighted, ‘the human tendency to improve outer appearance and simultaneously highlight social status prevailed and jewellery continued triumphantly to adorn both men and women’. The exhibition had several finger rings and Byzantine cross pendants to prove it:
Post-Byzantine/19th century Greek jewellery was a particularly interesting section of the exhibition, marrying themes from ancient and modern jewellery in the typical, ornate ‘Mykonos’ style earrings made from gold and pearls:
This diamond cross pendant was a particular highlight of the later part of the exhibition, having belonged to Manto Mavrogenous, who spent her entire fortune financing the Greek Revolution:
The final historical section of the exhibition featured work by Sofia Thanopoulou. Better known as Maroulina, Sofia was a self-taught creator who was one of the first important Greek jewellery designers in the second half of the 20th century. Her shop on Mykonos (1953-1972) attracted a prestigious, international clientèle, particularly after she began adding jewellery to her ranges of shoes, clothes, and bags in 1955. Combining Art Nouveau and traditional Greek influences, Sofia Thanopoulou created jewellery ‘characterised by the abundant expressiveness of their materials and their dynamic, often unexpected compositions’. Quite the jeweller role-model…
The final room of the exhibition was one of my favourites (and definitely The Goblin’s pick), in interpretation, design, architecture and, of course, contents. This was the place where the ‘meta-exhibition’ really came to the fore. I mean, just look at this stunning set-up:
This section of the exhibition was dedicated to creations commissioned for the exhibition from 12 contemporary Greek jewellers: Elena Syraka, Ileana Makri, Ioanna Souflia, Deux Hommes, Lito, Minas, Nikos Koulis, Sofia Vamiali, Sophia Kokosalaki, Two Is Company, Venyx by Eugenie Niarchos, Yannis Sergakis.
Venyx by Eugenie Niarchos undoubtedly crafted my favourite piece: a pendant featuring a traditional Cycladic head in a modern, gold setting. As well as being completely beautiful, this necklace seemed to epitomise the exhibition as a whole: ancient and modern Cycladic art and creation brought together in one place and one time.
Every item in the collection (according to the leaflet) was chosen to highlight that most timeless human trait: vanity. The desire to bedazzle ourselves has been around as long as we’ve known how to thread rocks onto a piece of thread. But it also speaks to the endless creative potential and endeavour of humanity; not only do we want to sparkle, we’re willing to invent and graft to do so. It might seem shallow, but the face (or ear, or wrist) you present to the world can matter, and adornment is a big part of that.
One could even argue it’s part of humanity to deck ourselves in glittery gubbins; after all, ‘Vanity’ has 7000 years of archaeological proof that we just want to be…