The Met, Madonna, Jewelry, Fashion, and the Catholic Imagination.

Image from the press preview, Heavenly Bodies.

This evening is the first Monday in May, when the Met Gala is held and the Costume institute opens one of the largest exhibits its ever devised, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. After reported multiple negotiations between Anna Wintour and the Vatican, the exhibit was deemed a go and as of today we will all get a glimpse of what could potentially be one of the most interesting exhibits to date. Catholic symbols are so interwoven into many cultures, it is clear this will be an intriguing look at how fashion relates to everything from the Pope to the Virgin Mary. One of the countries that this is very prevalent is Brazil. After living there over 5 years, I was very aware how the Catholic religion of the Portuguese had mixed with African and indigenous cultures. It infused their fashion and jewelry in a very deep manor.

Image from Carlos Miele, Homenagem a Mario Cravo Neto.

Symbols abound in Brazil…While writing my thesis on indigenous identity in Brazil and the United States, I discovered just how powerful religious iconography could be, when I saw parallels between early depictions of indigenous women as America and the notion of Mary and the anti-Mary or savage woman.  While this was one element of a very long thesis, Catholic imagery has long interested me. From texts such as that by Paul Koudounaries, whose photographs of the early jewel adorned Christian martyrs and saints in underground tomb amaze, to Madonna’s virginal performance, I was hooked. Madonna famously used key components of the religion: like virgins, saints, and martyrs in her musical performances. Her early work especially, really demonstrates her mastery of symbolism.

Nossa Senhora de Aparecida/ Our Lady of Aparecida.

For the Catholic religion, symbols become the incarnate or earthly representation of that which is held to be sacred and holy. It become even clearer over the years these notions of “saints” and “sinners” were part of an elaborate symbolic relationship between Catholicism, Christianity, power, and culture. The adornment associated with Catholicism is a complex narrative of clothing, ritual, and jewelry. One that they brought with them to the Americas, Africa, and beyond. One can also see some of these Catholic references in Georgian and early 1800s Italian jewelry, Victorian Momento Mori pieces, early Byzantine jewelry, and other antique examples which we will illustrate below.

1870s Italian, Castellani piece. Inspired by Byzantine jewelry. Housed in the Met, image by Sarara Couture.

Circa 1850s, some gold construction references to Byzantine jewelry, angel etc. By Luigi Saulini. Met Museum. Image Sarara Couture.

The Saints:

Details on my charm necklace, that I created while living in Brazil. It includes antique examples and newer saints in silver. Our Lady of Aparecida is pictured twice.

Catholicism has a lot of saints, and in each location where they brought the religion with them this varied. For instance, the negotiation between Catholicism and Brazil led to the creation of Afro-Catholic religions, various new Brazilian saints, and adornments. One example of jewelry which portrays this relationship are the pendants depicting Our Lady of Aparecida.  The saint has a long history associated with a mysterious statue pulled from the Paraiba river in the 1700s, all the way to the references to the “Black Madonna”. Scapulars or double saint necklace, featuring one saint worn hanging down the back, and another the front often also depict Our Lady of Aparecida. Popular cultural uses of these scapulars are all over the country, especially for surfers who use them as protection. So in honor of the Met exhibit I wanted to look at a few examples of jewelry and accessories.

Scapular example.

Personal Collection.


What is Catholicism if not Roman? The history of the Roman empire and it’s relationship to Christianity is a saga we cannot hope to summarize here, but we can look at the early roots in terms of jewelry if we look at Byzantium. The empire at the time was divided into two parts. Eastern and Western Rome.  In about 330 A.D. the Roman emperor Constantine I established New Rome or Constantinople and Christianity as its official religion. When Rome fell in 476 all that was left was eastern Rome or the Byzantine empire.  This is a complex history but to summarize this empire survived for centuries after. This is a moment rich in iconography, jewelry, and symbolism until the 8th and part of the 9th century when emperors banned religions imagery. Around 1054 the religious split came where one was called the Roman Catholics and the others the Eastern Orthodox Catholics. The rest is a very long history to get to today’s Rome, Vatican, and it’s relationship to Italy. However; it does lead to my favorite part Byzantine examples of jewelry. Here are some housed in the Met.

6th Century Byzantine. On display at the Met Museum.

Gold Necklace with Ornaments, 6th century
Byzantine, Early Byzantine
Gold; Overall: 36 x 7 x 1 3/8 in. (91.4 x 17.8 x 3.6 cm) Wt: 225g pendant cross: 2 3/4 x 1 7/8 x 3/8 in. (7 x 4.8 x 1 cm) pendant: 1 7/16 x 11/16 x 1/2 in. (3.7 x 1.7 x 1.2 cm) pendant: 1 3/8 x 5/8 x 1/2 in. (3.5 x 1.6 x 1.2 cm) pendant: 1 5/16 x 11/16 x 9/16 in. (3.3 x 1.7 x 1.4 cm) pendant: 1 9/16 x 11/16 x 1/2 in. (4 x 1.8 x 1.2 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.151)

7th Century, Byzantine.

Other Byzantine examples I photographed at the Met.

The Cross:

The history of the cross, as a symbol for Christians, can be traced back at least to the 3rd Century, which continues today and has spread of course into pop cultural references and iconography. That is why jewelry from the rosary to the cross can have so much power for the believer. The rosary is really a tool for prayer, with days assigned to types of prayer and each element or bead meaning different things. The bead above the cross is for the “Our Father” prayer, then you have the 3 Hail Marys, Glory Be and on.  When those messages are converted a vast system of counter cultural references can be created.  Symbols, gender, sexuality, and religion, are all tightly bound in the overall cultural belief system. Jewelry and accessories are one area where that iconography has been unwrapped and rewrapped in pop culture in very interesting ways.

Antique and Brazilian examples, my collection.

Pop Culture and the Fashion Accessory:

Catholicism’s relationship to popular culture is complex to define. Popular culture is a bit difficult itself to pin down! In many ways, it is a set of beliefs and objects endowed with symbols that have been created or reiterated by the newest generation. It becomes dominant at any certain period and proliferates in that setting. Fashion’s use of Catholic symbols was in some cases, a counter cultural response or rebellion that became pop culture history. Other times, it is a romanticism or fetishism of Catholicism that emerges. To celebrate the sure to be enthralling Met exhibit, I’m including below a round up of the best Catholic infused fashion accessories and jewelry for sale at the moment. I don’t know about you, but I cannot wait to see Madonna tonight!

Vintage example of a saint devotional charm bracelet.



Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs by Paul Koudounaris

In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo American Mourning Jewelry. 2012. Sarah Nehama.

The Meaning of Icons
by Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky

The Theology of the Icon
(2 volume set)

Carlos Miele. Cosac & Naify.

Brazilian Jewelry History(Joias de Crioulas): The Balangandán and the Charms of Bahia

Image from O que e que a Bahia tem. Museu Carlos Costa Pinto. 2006.

One of the things I loved about teaching anthropology at Scad, was exploring adornment and culture. The students loved learning more about how material culture gives us clues about our belief systems and diverse histories.  In this case, anthropology opened up a discourse concerning diversity, status, gender, and jewelry.  My training was in indigenous cultures and visual anthropology as well.

Jewelry is such an important aspect of culture.  Many cultures use jewelry to indicate status, gender cues, clan affiliation, and for monetary means as well.  Women in patrilineal cultures have traditionally used jewelry to survive, storing and hiding pieces to be used easily and converted to money during times of war or strive. Cultures value different stones, woods, and materials. One of my favorite examples of this, that I came into contact with while living in Brazil, was the Blanagandan.  This piece of jewelry represents the encounter between Portuguese culture and Africans in Brazil. This sad, but rich history, began when slaves were brought to Brazil after many of the enslaved indigenous populations started to die of disease.  With them, they brought the beliefs of the many tribes and cultures which they originated from, such as the Yoruba.

Old Yoruba Divination Necklaces. My collection.

The original Balangandans were made of the precious metal silver, at the end of the 17th century with their popularity gaining in the 18th-19th century.  These pieces of jewelry had a direct relationship to status and monetary wealth or value.  There are both Christian and African symbols in the construction of the jewelry. One can recognize properties of divination and symbols straight from Africa, merged here in the balangandan (it has been suggested that this word referred to the sound made when worn). However, it may be more likely related to African linguistic origins.

Image from O que e que a Bahia tem. Museu Carlos Costa Pinto. 2006. Notice how the Balangandan is worn at the waist.

Specifically, Balangandans were worn by freed slaves and some slaves whom the ‘owners’ favored, but because these pieces had more references to Africa and non Catholic elements they were used or worn in more specific situations, than they “creole or freed slave gold jewelry”. However, it is really important to emphasize that these were objects of jewelry that were indeed negotiated by the African women themselves. They control their image and status using these objects, which also included fine earrings, bracelets, necklaces and rings of gold. This is something that did not happen visually obvious for North American freed slaves. Brazilian Creolo women and freed slaves obtained a status that showed in the women of Bahia and their gold jewelry. It was stacked sky high both inside and outside the house, when the occasion was correct. This was especially the case of the freed creole women, whose wealth grew as they were sought out by Catholic women for spiritual advice and secret solutions of non Catholic origin. They were paid for such services and their status often grew.  Many were practicing a form of Candomblé, yet keeping Catholicism in some aspects.  Another important detail to realize is that these Balangandans were not necklaces, but belts where charms were personalized and added for the purposes of the wearer.

Probably one of the best sources in the world is the Museum of Carlos Costa Pinto in Salvador. Their text which was published for a collection exhibit which contained “creole” and slave jewelry is in Portuguese, and has many historically rich details. The text discusses how the overall exaggerated use of layers of jewelry used by women in Bahia, led to Carmen Miranda’s persona and accessories styling. They discuss the possibility of slave women also earning enough jewelry to in some instances buy freedom. The jewelry’s relationship to the women is complex as suggested by this quote:

“A opulencia e um ultima instancia, uma exteriorização de luxo e riqueza, mesmo podendo dar uma impressao falso de que a exibe. Joias de rainha para mulheres do povo, livres ou escravas. Joias atraentes, capazes de sinalizar poder e distinção” ( O que e que a Bahia tem, 56. Ourivesaria do Museu Carlos Costa Pinto) Simone Trindade.  Translation: This opulence, is an instance where the appearance of luxury and riches is possible to at the same time, give one a false impression of what they are exhibiting.  Jewelry fit for a queen, but instead used by poorer women free or enslaved.

Image from O que e que a Bahia tem. Museu Carlos Costa Pinto. 2006.The jewelry of these women also included gold pieces, like huge cuffs and necklaces, also bearing a mix of Catholic and African references. This was particularly the case in 1881, when slaves were freed and such precious metals came to symbolize power in freedom.  In some ways, it was important to have some relationship to the dominant religion, while at the same time hiding certain beliefs in the symbolism. The Balangandan is made up of the chain, thicker usually used as a belt, the “nave” or charm holder, and the charms. It was very specific to the user, charms chosen according to what they needed or valued. It seems that there was a use for specific charms alone versus the entire Balangandan, which was also negotiated when needed. The Balangandan had a mystic and religious function and was not publicly demonstrated as much as the gold bracelets and such. Older women of status would bring them out specifically for festivals or gatherings as well. They seem to be tied to wealth, whereas the Balangandan is more tied to use and status. Although there are some more commonly used symbols intact, many referencing male and female aspects as well:

Image from O que e que a Bahia tem. Museu Carlos Costa Pinto. 2006. Antique Balanganda. 30 charms on silver.

pomegranate-wealth prosperity

fish-reference to Jesus and ample food

The Key-control, access to that which is locked.

Dipper- fertility

Tooth- to take on the properties of the animal and to protect

Figa to ward off evil, popular in Brazil ( North African and Mediterranean origin)

Pages 64-65 of the Museum booklet found at Carlos Costa Pinto describes the symbols in more detail.

Repro pieces made for tourists after the 19th century are often brass and examples from the 50s look like necklaces in silver metals, smaller scale-usually uniform in materials, thin tin metals, and caste construction in some cases. In terms of the older rarer examples there are ways to tell, such as the maker’s marks, style of construction, and material.  This rich iconography continues to be a big part of the culture of the area and is a fascinating example of gender, women’s roles and the power of jewelry as a symbol.

Image from O que e que a Bahia tem. Museu Carlos Costa Pinto. 2006. Balangandan. Antique example. Showing authentic construction and diverse materials used.

MontageArt: Abstract Portrait of a Brazilian Fashion Jeweler

Montageart "African" collection jewelry. Image Montageart.

Montageart African Necklace. Image Montageart.


I have a deep love for the way in which Brazilian artists and designers see the world. Having studied 5 years in Brazil, I was able to get a sense of fashion trends, learn about popular fashion designers, take in how they interpret popular and folk cultural inspirations and follow their fashion week coverage. Beyond this, I have such an appreciation for the jewelry created by indigenous Brazilians, as well as, by artists with brands or even those that can be bought on a beach or roadside.  I ran across the brand Montageart recently, and decided they’d be a fit for the blogazine. They are beyond creative and this is evident in both their jewelry line and artistic home decor and lighting. They had me at the gigantic necklace they created as wall decor! The artist’s definition of Montage is “a combination of images taken from any number of media (photographs, film, and handmade). These images can be whole or partial, glued together on a surface (such as a photomontage), or edited together to produce a video or film” (  When one gazes at their pieces, they can begin to understand why they chose this name. They create with each piece, a sort of an accessories collage. Their necklaces and bracelets are very editorial but also textural. Their work has been featured in Brazilian Cosmopolitan, Estilo, Shape, Elle and on well known figures.

Montageart jewelry in Shape Brazil.

Montageart jewelry in Shape Brazil.


I was instantly drawn to their armor style modern, but earthy mesh pieces. These oversized examples have such style and fashion references as well.  Some of my favorite designs can be seen below. You can also browse more of their creative process and jewelry examples via their instagram.

mesh necklace Montageart

Amazing montageart headdress via

Amazing montageart headdress via

The Interview:

When did you begin making jewelry and why?

We started in 2002 as a hobby, when we realized that we could turn it into a business. Eduardo is an architect and I (Alex) am a graphic designer. Today, we work as designers for Montageart. We discovered that people had been looking for accessories to mix with their jewelry in order to create unique looks. We then started selling as this aesthetic became a trend, incorporating such vintage pieces. We were sort of in the right place at the right time. Our strength is in the mix of materials and the superposition of layers without limits.

Vietnam collection image. Montageart.

Vietnam collection image. Montageart.

Vietnam collection 2015. Montageart.

Vietnam collection 2015. Montageart.

What are some of the things you look to for inspiration each season?

Our latest collection was inspired on Vietnam. We have always researched diverse cultural groups and have chosen a few of these as a theme for some of our collections. However, we are not limited to such inspiration. We have used different themes such as bees, travel, etc.

Montageart bee necklaces. image by Montageart.

Montageart bee necklaces. image by Montageart.

Explain your process for design and construction?

We have a sort of intuitive process during the construction of the pieces. We always try to be attentive to what is happening. Also, taking into account the attitude and wide diversity of the people who wear our jewelry. We keep an open mind and don’t get caught up in trends, but we do pay attention to them. 

Montageart image, large decorative necklace wall art.

Montageart image, large decorative necklace wall art.

What were some of your favorite creations so far?

Besides accessories we created a brand of objects for home decor. Sort of decor out of objects, right now our favorite is a large “collar” made to decorate the wall.  

Does Brazil inspire your designs in any way?

Yes, but not solely. As it was mentioned before, we are always open to new ideas and contrasts. Again, with no limits.

What are some of your favorite materials to work with?

Many. We really like textile treads in general, crystals, rough stones, and metals- which we also dye. We are constantly experimenting with new materials.

Fashion inspirations current or past?

We like a lot Karl Lagerfeld, Manish Arora, Vivienne Westwood, Miucha Prada. Among Brazilian designers, Antonio Bernardo and Amir Slama…

Who are your jewelry icons, maybe a brand you look up to, styles 1920s, art deco, 1970s, Victorian?

Miriam Haskell ,YSL Bijoux, Cartier, Paco Rabanne, 1920s/art deco  jewelry, antique pieces, tribal/ethnic jewelry. We are always doing research look not only to the history of the accessory, but decoration, art etc.