A Thousand Words
The Alfred Jewel
by Mary Elizabeth Podles
The gold, enamel, and crystal ornament known as the Alfred Jewel, standing slightly over 2.5 inches high, is a dazzling display of Anglo-Saxon workmanship from the late ninth century, a period that we generally consider rather a dark age. The front of the jewel depicts a half-length figure holding two foliated scepters; he has been variously interpreted as Christ in majesty, Christ as the Divine Wisdom, or perhaps, based on comparison to other contemporary images, the sense of sight. The enamel plaque is executed in cloisonné, that is, the outlines are made from gold wires attached to a back plate, and the colors are laid in with enamel and fired. The back plate is overlaid with a thick piece of rock crystal; its unusual teardrop shape suggests that it was an older, possibly Roman, gem repurposed by the Anglo-Saxon craftsman.
A gold filigree frame holds the crystal in place. Around the edge in tiny letters runs the inscription, "AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN" ("Alfred had me made"). At the bottom, the edges of the frame are attached together by a dragon-like creature with a hollow snout, worked in fine wire filigree and gold granulation. On the back, in low relief, is a plant design, likely a representation of the Tree of Life.
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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.
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