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Gemstones, Crystals and a ‘Bushel of Pearls’: Bejewelling ‘This Sceptred Isle’

Lecture or Study Day

Nicholas Hilliard Elizabeth I The Pelican Portrait, c.1575, The Walker Art Gallery, image
The Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, detail of pearls and jewels.JPG
Elizabeth I's left sleeve, a detail of the Armada Portrait, 1588, The Queen's House, Green

The lecture title borrows William Shakespeare's stirring words from Richard II and Horace Walpole's vivid description of a pearl-laden Queen Elizabeth I. Medieval and Tudor monarchs understood that the visual beauty and rarity of precious gem-stones, including luminous sapphires, rubies and spinels alongside lustrous pearls and clear rock crystal, expressed and enhanced their regal power and status. Resplendence and awe-inspiring magnificence transcend the passage of time in portraits of monarchs from King Richard II in the Wilton Diptych to Queen Elizabeth I in Nicholas Hilliard's painted miniatures. Hilliard himself trained as a goldsmith and the technical brilliance of other anonymous masters of this craft is still evidenced in surviving jewels such as Princess Blanche's dazzling crown, the Royal Gold Cup in the British Museum and Henry V's rock crystal sceptre linked to the City of London and the Battle of Agincourt. Tracing the sources of the stones in distant lands, the lecture follows a journey from the gem-stone mines of Asia, the pearl fisheries of the Persian Gulf, mountains with crystal mines and freshwater pearls from the rivers of Scotland, to the merchants of Venice and Bruges, Medieval markets in Avignon and Champagne and on to the goldsmiths of Paris and London.

Text © Anne Haworth

King Richard II, a detail from the Kings Screen in York Minster.JPG
Edward the Confessor holding his attribute, a sapphire ring, a detail from the Wilton Dipt
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