This year’s Costume Institute exhibition, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, offers an unprecedented presentation of papal vestments and liturgical accessories on loan from the Sistine Chapel, together with ensembles from the early 20th century to the present. Fashions on view in the Museum’s Byzantine and medieval galleries, and at The Met Cloisters, illuminate the profound influences of devotional motifs and practices.
When The Met Store started thinking about developing necklaces, rings, earrings, and other jewelry to bring this show to life, the possibilities were almost overwhelming. Enter Donna Distefano, a master goldsmith who crafts gorgeous jewelry using Renaissance metalworking techniques.
In past collaborations with The Met Store, Distefano has taken details from a wide range of Renaissance works from The Met collection—paintings by Bronzino, Cranach, and Holbein; sumptuous objects carved from metal and stone; even iron keys—into rings, earrings, and necklaces that bespeak elevated taste. For Heavenly Bodies, she used her love of medieval art and literature to home in on two exquisite pieces in The Met collection that speak to both the devotional and artistic themes of the exhibition.
A beautiful early-Renaissance ring in The Met collection, made about 1464–71 in Rome, Italy, is engraved with the name of Paul II and provides a powerful symbol of papal authority. Such impressive rings may have had a ceremonial function—and were imbued with a profusion of iconographic meaning. At the corners of the ring’s bezel are emblems of the four Evangelists—an angel (Matthew), winged lion (Mark), winged ox (Luke), and eagle (John)—with the shield of Paul II and that of the French crown on the two sides.
Distefano pays homage to the craftsmanship of this magnificent piece in a suite of jewelry in sterling silver and 22K vermeil. In addition to a delicate reproduction of the ring, she has taken its motifs and repeated them in earrings, pendant necklaces, and charm bracelets—using the symbols of the four Evangelists and French royalty to tell a story about of-the-moment style.
She takes a similar approach in her work after a 16th-century rosary pendant in The Met collection. Possibly made in Flanders or Mexico, the original pendant is beautifully wrought from silver gilt with rock crystal and inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Juxtaposing a cross with a skull and crossbones, the piece serves as a beautiful reminder of life’s transience—and what might lie beyond.
The pendant’s decorative elements—a crowned skull, crossbones, and cross with semiprecious-stone inlay—have spurred Distefano’s imagination. In dangling earrings, pendant necklaces, charm bracelets, and other refined pieces, she reinterprets an object that was both beautiful and deeply meaningful—and creates exclusive new jewelry that stands apart.
Looking further into The Met’s holdings, our designers discovered a beautiful cross pendant that provides an opulent motif for a suite of bangles. Inlaid with stunning blue, pink and yellow sapphires, garnets, a tourmaline, and an emerald, the cross was made about 1925 by Edward Everett Oakes (American, 1891–1960), a noted jeweler and silversmith who was an award-winning member of the Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston.
As a symbol of Christ’s triumph over death, the cross emerged as a popular image on Byzantine jewelry by the 5th century—and it remains so today. Our bracelets (as well as a diaphanous scarf bearing the same motif) evoke the extraordinary ways designers for centuries have infused even more meaning into this deeply powerful symbol of faith.