Measuring just 3.2 cm in height and 2.8 cm in width, this tiny pendant is more mysterious than an initial study would suggest.
Reverse-painted glass panels are decorated with religious images and set into a silver-gilt mount shaped like a book, which can be “opened” like a locket to reveal an empty inner container.
On the top and bottom are matching trefoil loops, and the “book” is held shut by a clasp on one side. All of this we can readily observe. But then the questions start building: when and where was the pendant made? What is depicted in each of the glass panels? And what would have been kept inside this unusual object?
Locating the Pendant
When and where was this pendant made? It would appear that both the glass and silver-gilt mount date to the Renaissance. The glass panels are reverse-painted (a technique known today by the French name, verre églomisé ) and resemble German or Italian examples from the early seventeenth century. Pendants in the shape of books were fashionable during the Renaissance, especially in the sixteenth century.
However, the earliest record for this pendant dates to 1871—and, interestingly, in that same year the Victoria and Albert Museum purchased a remarkably similar pendant from a dealer in Nuremberg.
The similarity between the two pieces makes one ask the question: could the seventeenth-century glass and metalwork have been re-used materials, combined during the Victorian period to make both the Courtauld’s pendant and the V&A’s?
One Design, Many Pendants
A young German art historian has recently identified eight book-shaped pendants with strikingly similar features, including the objects in both the Courtauld and the V&A collections. Each of these eight pendants is composed of four reverse-painted (verre églomisé) panels set in a book-shaped silver-gilt frame. The details are virtually identical in nearly all of them, and most are tentatively dated to the early 1600s.
On the Courtauld’s piece, the glass is almost certainly seventeenth century work, but the mounts are more difficult to date and the question of their making is unclear.
Until now, the only scholarly publication on these particular pendants is an article of 1942, in which the author speculated that the pendants could initially have been made as metal frames into which the purchaser would have inserted glass panels that depicted subjects of their choice. However, as noted above, it is also possible that the panels were seventeenth-century glass from another object, which had been inserted into the mounts at a later date.
Exploring the Pendant: Iconography and Possible Uses
The iconography of the pendant raises further questions. What are the images depicted in the glass panels? How are they related to one another? And do they provide any clues to how this pendant would have been used or worn by its original owner?
Decoding the Pendant’s Iconography
There are four reverse-painted glass panels set on the back and front of the pendant. On the front cover is an image of the crucifixion, with Christ in the centre flanked by his mother Mary and the Apostle John.
The inside left panel depicts the Lamb of God (or Agnus Dei)—an ancient symbol for Christ, the “sacrificial lamb” whose death atones for the sins of the world.
The lamb holds a resurrection banner, a traditional symbol of Christ’s triumph over death; and, as the panel is placed directly behind the crucifixion, it suggests a narrative link between the first two panels, between death and resurrection. The third panel, located on the inner right side of the pendant, shows a haloed man holding a cup with an indistinct white shape rising from it.
This odd shape is a serpent, and the figure is St John the Evangelist, who is said to have survived an attempt on his life by drawing out the venom from a poisoned cup given to him by his enemies.
The image on the back panel is more enigmatic. It appears to be Mary Magdalene with the alabaster jar, who, like John the Evangelist, is beloved of Christ and witness to the resurrection. However, the elongated jug in her hand differs from the usual ointment jar associated with the Magdalene, and her simple headdress is a clear departure from the long hair that makes her such a distinctive iconographic figure. At the same time, there is no symbol linking this figure to an alternative saint. The woman is probably Mary Magdalene, but we cannot say for certain.
The Possible Contents and Uses of the Pendant
Without a clear sense of its origins, it is difficult to know what would have been kept in this pendant. It was most likely a reliquary, but alternatively it may have contained a prayer, a tiny codex, or an Agnus Dei (a small wax seal of the Lamb of God blessed by the Pope).
To arrive at any clear sense of its contents, we would have to ask more questions about how it was used: was it worn as jewellery? Or would it have hung in a chapel? Could the pendant have been a decorative attachment to a rosary? Again, we can only speculate as to the possible contents of this miniature book-shaped object. The function of this pendant remains a mystery.
References and acknowledgements
 Ebenhoech, R. & Tammen, S. “Wearing Devotional Books.” [Unpublished Manuscript]. As Ms. Ebenhoech points out in her paper, there are no known extant examples of book-shaped pendants prior to the middle of the sixteenth century, as this kind of jewelry seems to have become suddenly popular starting around 1500.
I wish to thank the following scholars for their help:
- Kirstin Kennedy, Curator of Metalwork at the Victoria and Albert Museum, for taking time to show us similar objects in the V&A collection, and for sharing her insight on our object.
- Romina Ebenhoech, PhD candidate in art history at the University of Giessen, Germany, for generously sharing her original and very helpful research on, and images of, book-shaped pendants of the Renaissance. (Ms. Ebenhoech’s provisional thesis title is “Bücher tragen. Miniaturbuchanhänger des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts. Schmückende Pretiosen, Bücher, Miniaturen und Medien der Andacht.“)
- Ayla Lepine, for aiding with the selection of this object.