Libmonster ID: U.S.-614

Author: by Natalia ZHILINA, Cand. Sc. (History), Archeology Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences

Filigree art has been known from ancient times: it was practiced in Egypt, Greece, Rome and in the Byzantine Empire. And in Russia too: her earliest specimens are dated back to the 9th century A.D. How indigenous was the Russian filigree art? Where did it remain true to ancient traditions? And where was it exposed to foreign influences? It will become possible to answer these and other questions by studying the techniques of filigree art.

Articles in this rubric reflect the opinion of the author.- Ed.

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When I first began studying the old Russian granulation and filigree art, I could hardly contain the feeling of excitement and jubilation, even though the subject was one in a succession of my routine assignments.

How happy was I on days when some of the famous museums here allowed me to have a look at their jewelry, and when I could, as my official assignment said, "make microphotographs of technicalities." And here I am, trudging toward the Moscow Kremlin, burdened with a weighty binocular lens, camera and attachment. Marina Martynova, a custodian at the Armory, opens the showcase, pulls on snow-white gloves, and puts a necklace of precious medallions, the celebrated Ryazan barmy, on the stage of my lens. I peer into the lens and find myself in a world of golden hues. An enormous world! I have no words to describe the density of details packed into every square millimeter of the filigree carpet.

Later on I crystallized my emotions into the cut and dried phrase, "visual examination of old Russian ornaments adorned with granulation and filigree at magnification x l6".

The position of the object changes imperceptibly on the stage, yet enough for the scrolls, colors, and mounted gems to reveal their minute details to my eyes. As I gaze into the middle of a flower, just two millimeters large, I am overwhelmed with a blizzard of conjectures: how, when, and where this precious beauty came to be...

Here's what granulation is all about: tiny silver or gold grains are fused into the surface of metal articles to form an ornament. In old Russian ornaments, the grains had a diameter of 0.5 to 1 mm. They were laid out in geometric patterns, triangles, lozenges, and lines. Such ornaments put us in mind of folk embroidery of geometric designs done by cross-stitching techniques.

Filigree is a cord of two interlaced wires, each about 0.25 mm in diameter, adding up to a cord of 0.5 mm or slightly larger.

I take measurements of the grain and filigree patterns of the ornament design. My workmates wonder: why take so much trouble!

At the start, I just wanted to make out every finest detail holding a clue to the technique used by craftsmen of the l lth and 12th centuries. After the off-the-cuff remark dropped by Alexei Chernetsov, head of the Slavic and Russian Studies Department at my Institute, "Wouldn't it be fun to see how you manage with the Crown of Monomach," I pushed the time frame limits of my search down to the 15th century to explore Russian and foreign-made filigrees analogous to that fabled relic. I ended up examining over 1,000 objects from caches and filigree items of the late l lth

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to the 16th centuries and, as a result, reconstructing the Russian technical tradition, beginning in the 11th century.

The so-called three-bead ornaments, which were either temple pendants or elements of an ochelie(*), were the most common objects stashed away in caches. An analysis of the technique used to manufacture these objects allowed me to retrace minutely, step by step, the origins of openwork filigree, an art cut short by the Mongol invasion in 1237. The bead was gradually getting lighter in weight. Initially solid, it was subsequently provided with imperceptible holes for hot air to escape on soldering. The holes were getting ever larger to become part of ornamental design. That was not enough for the craftsmen, though. Finally, the metal bead disappeared altogether, giving way, in both the aesthetic and technological senses, to openwork filigree.

The pre-Mongol caches have yielded superb decorations indeed. In 1822, the first, and so far the greatest, cache was unearthed in Old Ryazan.(*) It included a barmy, or shoulder mantle, a symbol of princely rank, which was put on over rich ceremonial dress; round kolts, or head-dress pendants, and many smaller objects. The unique find aroused enormous interest. Later in the 19th century, Nikodim Kondakov made an analysis of its artistic, historic and archeological significance. In our days, Russian crafts have been thoroughly researched by Boris Rybakov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Tatiana Makarova, Dr. Sc. (Hist.) of the Academy's Archeology Institute, is exploring the specifics of Russian cloisonne and niello.

Precious necklaces composed of medallions in luxurious filigree frames are the most impressive among the objects found in the cache. They were thought to be uncommon for Old Russia on the assumption that Russian craftsmen had patterned their work on West European art. The aerial filigree is flattened into a strip and laid in the shape of spiral twirls curving toward the center. The principal twirl is overlaid with smaller coils. The design gives the impression of a raised "inflated" carpet (in contrast to this design, the Byzantine filigree is held to be too "rigid", with linear borders, simple coils, and loops as its basic elements).

It must be said that the majority of outstanding West European works in the "bombastic style"

* Ochelie (derived from the Russian chelo, forehead)-a piece of lavish decor on old Russian headgear.- Ed.

* See: V. Darkevich, "Ryazan Land Yields Old Treasures", Science in Russia, Nos. 5- 6, \993. - Ed.

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were manufactured in the 13th century when both the Byzantine (East Roman) Empire and Russia were ravaged by Latin invaders in 1204 and Mongols in 1237 to 1240, respectively. A good many of the masterpieces perished in the marauding raids.

It may happen now and then that a tiny technicality uncovered by chance could help reconstruct a long-forgotten link-here between the Byzantine and Russian arts of jewelry-making. The visual inspection of details has revealed that the gem settings of the Old Ryazan medallions were fashioned from flattened gold spring, or spiral. This technique is called "gold threading" in Russia. It also was used to form loops for pearls adorning a rare Byzantine decoration, the kolt, from a foreign private collection (known as the Balashov Kolt).

The Byzantine influence on Old Russia is a fact. This country embraced Christian culture, nobility's dress and regalia, some decoration styles and ornaments. One kind of art, cloisonne, was borrowed almost unchanged.

Filigree and granulation were for the elite. The personal things of the rulers and nobles had to conform to world standards and styles predominant at a particular time. It is unlikely that West European rulers chose the "bombastic" style, while their Byzantine counterparts opted for "rigidity". It was just every style for its time.

While a stylistic study helps find out when particular pieces of jewelry were in vogue, another problem, that of attributing such jewelry

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to its place of manufacture can be elucidated by studying the technique applied. To do this, every minute detail has to be recorded and collated. This is where a binocular lens steps in.

A comparative study of West European and Russian works of art shows that Western craftsmen gave a good deal of attention to embossing. To obtain a filigree effect, this technique was used to impress rather than weave tiny grains on a wire filament. In Russia, the embossing technique had an auxiliary part-it was meant to accentuate the outlines of ornament zones. The main design was done by twisted wire filigree or granulation. Incidentally, our studies have helped us establish technical similarity between the Old Ryazan masterpieces and the earlier jewelry

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(l lth century) recovered from old Russian caches elsewhere. We found, in particular, that the headgear of a boyar noble and a prince included a ryasna, or bell-like ear pendants on chains. The filigree decorating the pendants was produced from a miniature strip. Strip filigree was probably a long-standing tradition. True, it was not as fine as the filigree of the Ryazan medallions.

The strips on Russian-produced articles have a thickness of 0.5 mm, while those on Byzantine products are only half as thick. This suggests two technical standards-a solid one in Russia and a finer one in the East Roman Empire. Finding out about the filigree standards typical of a particular culture zone is, to my mind, a promising way of attributing old jewelry.

The technical differences existing between the Byzantine and Russian filigree in the pre-Mongol period continued well into the 14th and 15th centuries. As a standard of the Paleologus dynasty era (1261-1453), I was lucky to have examined the gold oklad (case and frame) of the icon Our Lady of Vladimir in the custody of the Armory Museum of the Moscow Kremlin. Its filigree was done to the same standard as the finest specimens from old Russian caches, which could be attributed to Byzantine craftsmanship or influence. Its strips have a width of 1.0 to 2.0 mm and a thickness of 0.2 to 0.25 mm, a figure more acceptable to the eye. This standard was used in the filigree of the Crown of Monomach. Similarity is apparent in the granulation as well, in both the diameter of the grain (about 1.0 mm) and the manufacturing technique (each grain was seated in a prepared site).

Curiously, parallels for the Crown of Monomach were previously found in the East. In the early 20th century, for example, archeologist Alexander Spitsyn concluded that the filigree work of its eight gold plates was just an amateurish imitation of articles crafted by Central Asian jewelers. The Central Asian artwork is best exemplified by a gold plaque retrieved in Bukhara. A closer examination of the plaque filigree showed a technical standard different from Byzantine articles. The Central Asian filigree is smaller-0.15 mm thick and 0.5 mm wide. Byzantine filigree is a smooth strip of regular rectangular cross section. It is crafted by means of a "soft" flattening of a little wire wound on a pivot (helix or gold thread). Thereby the edges remain even, and the pattern of the coils is closely spaced and sharp. It did not take much effort to achieve a finer artistic effect than it was by flattening the filigree fabric woven from two little wires. Eastern filigree retains the shape of a cord an irregular cross section, with the coils distinctly visible and wire ends diverging at the end of the cord.

These differences resulted from different flattening techniques. Byzantine filigree was made in a special rolling device comprising two rotating rulers, between which a round cord was drawn. The rollers were provided with grooves imparting their shape to the cord. This process helped smooth the original twist shape, turning the cord into an even strip. In the East, however, craftsmen flattened the filigree cord by hammering.

Aesthetically, works produced by either technique are quite impressive. They embody different technical traditions, and so imitation is out of the question.

Judging by the style and ornamental analogies, the filigree of the Crown of Monomach can be dated to the 13th century (up until the 1260s). Since the miter shape of the crown (made up of plates resembling the teeth of a crown or a diadem) was adopted in the post-Byzantine states beginning in the 1220s or 1230s, the dating can be narrowed to a few decades between the 1220s and 1260s.

In making oklad frames for icons, Gospels, and crosses, Russian craftsmen carried on the traditions of the large filigree strip standard, 0.5 mm thick and 1 mm wide, and of uneven flattening. The finer strips on articles made by Ambrosias, a craftsman from the St. Trinity and Sergius Monastery, were the only exception. While heavily exposed to Byzantine influence, Russian filigree craftsmanship developed its own technical standard that endured for many centuries.


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FILIGREE UNDER THE MICROSCOPE // New-York: Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.COM). Updated: 10.09.2018. URL: (date of access: 25.07.2024).


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