Gothic Revival

June 1998

From the Vault

Gothic Revival

The Gothic griffin and charismatic chimera recall the Romantic movement of the 19th century

The Romantic movement in 19th century Europe inspired artists to look to the past for purity of artistic expression. The pious and chivalrous ideals of the Middle Ages were especially popular during the early 1800s, leading to the revival of the Gothic style in literature, architecture and the decorative arts.

Popular social events for the upper classes during the 19th century included extravagant dress balls based on historical themes. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, for example, hosted the Plantagenet ball in 1842 dressed as Medieval monarchs, setting a precedent for fashionable society to follow.

Jewelry was frequently made to suit whatever period was chosen for these elaborate affairs. Because there were few, if any, examples of Medieval jewelry available to imitate, jewelers turned to Gothic architecture for inspiration, giving Gothic revival style jewelry a decidedly structural look. Pointed arches, trefoils and gargoyles copied from Gothic cathedrals provided motifs for jewelry.

One particularly popular gargoyle was the griffin - a mythological beast that typically had the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. Another prevalent Gothic monster was the dragon, usually portrayed in jewelry in its death throes under the business end of St. George's lance.

As the century progressed, other revival styles came in waves, replacing each other in fashion. The archeological revival style that imitated ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan cultures was paramount from roughly 1860 to 1880, while the Renaissance revival style was de rigueur from about 1870 until the turn of the century.

Renaissance ornament derives in great part from the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean. One motif they shared was the chimera - a mythological creature with the head of a lion belching fire, the body of a goat, the tail of a serpent.

Griffins, dragons and chimeras became interchangeable stylistic images of the time and myriad variations appeared in jewelry. In his 1908 book describing jewelry of the late 19th century, Henri Vever says le broche chimére, or chimera brooch, was all the rage in France during the 1880s and 1890s. From there, its popularity spread to Germany, England and the U.S. Because it was a suitable motif for men's or women's jewelry, virtually every jeweler of the time had at least one variation of the chimera-griffin-dragon as part of his inventory. To this day, antique jewelry dealers offer its rampant form on stickpins or watchfobs for men, and on bracelets, earrings, pendants or brooches for women.

by Elise B. Misiorowski

Of hand-chased gold with a natural pearl emanating from his mouth like cool fire, this beguiling variation of a griffin-chimera is poised in midair, its scaly body coiling, eagle wings spread and leonine head with glittering emerald eye set in a menacing pose.

Brooch and photo courtesy of Robert Weldon.




Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


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