On symbolism in jewellery designs

О символизме в ювелирном искусствеAccording to specialists in cultural studies, our time, including the whole of the previous (20th) century, is a transitional period between a sensuous humanist culture and a culture focussed on the sacred and supra-sensual. There is an acute hunger for things that lie beyond the physical senses, which manifests, among other things, in jewellery. Words such as symbolic, spiritual, religious and others are fashionable and frequently used. Unfortunately, however, the concepts behind them have been borrowed from our humanistic culture and their implicit meaning is far from the true one. In our opinion, if we do wish to return to the sacred, it would be wise to turn to the traditional

Christian culture of Europe before the Renaissance, when it was sacred at its core, and to the culture of Russia in the XVIII century. From this perspective, we will try to elaborate on the concepts used by artists and theorists of art in describing certain jewellery items, styles and trends. Here, we should clarify that art could only be referred to as sacred if it reflects a spiritual vision peculiar to a specific confession and uses the special symbolic language of the latter. Symbols can include shapes, colors and visual images, and, what is particularly important in the art of jewellery-making, natural materials. For example, the religious art of the Renaissance and Baroque periods cannot be regarded as sacred, because it is no different from the secular (profane) art of the era in terms of style. In addition, it is believed that in sacred art, “the spirit creates form”, therefore the process of creating sacred objects must also be sacralized and carried out within a particular religious tradition.

All of us are familiar with the ornaments available on the jewellery market today, which carry the signs of the zodiac or the symbols and images taken from various cults and are offered as amulets on par with Christian crosses and icons. This trend co-exists with another, which is becoming increasingly popular. Brand-new symbols are being invented or old cultural symbols are recreated from scratch in order to be marketed as bringing good luck, health and success. The name of this recent trend is typical for our day and age: such jewellery is called “Spiritual, But Not Religious” (SBNR). What is the real meaning of this expression? The Latin word “religio” means “to restore a connection”, and refers to establishing a connection with God, becoming one with Him. Thus, “not religious” means “not of God”. But what about the word “spiritual? In Christianity, when the concept of “spirituality” is understood in a positive sense, it is associated with holiness and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. “God is spirit” (John 4:24). But there are other “spirits” who have fallen away from God and are known as demons. Thus we may replace the complex label “spiritual but not religious” with one simple word: “demonic”. Now let us try to understand the concept of a “symbol”. Usually, we use this word to mean any conventional sign denoting a complex object, action, feeling, idea and so forth. To a certain extent, this is correct. The error lies in the fact that, according to the rationalist approach, a symbol is no more than an artificial convention and has no connection with reality. As they say, “this is merely symbolic”. But actual fact, sacred symbols are not natural in origin; they are not invented, but granted to us from the higher dimension. They cannot be be comprehended in a manner that is rational, definite or completely straightforward. Symbols may only be interpreted, but even then, the interpretation itself is still a symbol, albeit a slightly rationalized one. The Greek word ςυμβολον (symbolon) refers to a sign that confirms the union of two entities.

Christianity, along with other traditional sacral cultures centered around the quest for the ultimate truth, uses symbols as a means of understanding the spiritual world and God Himself – that is, of gaining knowledge about them. It should be noted that the phrase from the Gospel, “and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32) may be regarded as the motto of any genuine sacral culture. Given that knowledge was understood as the merging between the subject (perceiver) and the object (percept), symbols were seen as a direct aid in this process, owing to the belief that a symbol contained the energies of the prototype and, in effect, did not merely depict or refer to the phenomenon, object or concept to be known, but served as its actual manifestation, as stated in the apocryphal Gospel of Philip: “The truth did not come into the world naked; it came in the form of images and symbols. The world shall not know it any other way.” (67) Or, according to Dionysius the Areopagite: “Truly, manifest things are icons of things unseen”. This belief served as the basis for the theory of the Orthodox icon and the doctrine of the sacraments. The well-developed system of symbols used in the sacraments, rituals and religious art of the Orthodox Church helps people make a harmonious entrance into the spiritual dimension while living in the material one, to comprehend the laws of the spiritual world and to detect the secret links between the spiritual and material realms. Of course, this does not happen automatically.

The gain insight into the truth, one has to make a tremendous internal, or spiritual, effort. The main distinguishing feature of the genuine Orthodox path to knowledge is the permanent bond between the believer and God, accomplished of the believer’s own free will and based on love, much like the union found in marriage. Curiously, the antonym of the word “symbol” in Greek is the word “diabolos” (διαβολος), which is etymologically connected to the concepts of division and lies and is used to refer to the devil. It is significant that the quest for humanist, rationalist knowledge is defined using the Latin word intellectus, which also has an etymological connection with the principles of separation or division; in this case, the process of gaining knowledge involves a confrontation between the subject and the object, rather than their unification, and the knowledge is acquired in order for the subject to use or gain power over the object. One could say that the motto for this quest for knowledge is the well-known phrase “divide and conquer”. However, let us return to the subject of jewellery. In ancient sacral cultures, a set of jewellery served as a means of understanding the world. No wonder the Greek word κοςμος (cosmos) may refer not only to the universe or to harmony, but also to a set of jewellery or outfit. These days, we tend to recall the protective role of ancient jewelry first. But we should remember that this protection resulted from the harmonious union of man with the complex structure of the world, which found a symbolic expression in jewellery. Human beings felt one with the universe, and this was what protected them. Of course, the rationalist approach did exist in ancient times in the form of magic, but as a rule, society did not see it as legitimate. Magic refers to the belief that the laws of this world are subject to occult powers that can be mastered with the help of special magical items and actions, such as spells, rituals or amulets. Magic, unlike religion, does not require us to establish a connection with God or to achieve an internal, spiritual change; the only thing that matters is to perform the right actions. Magic serves a very earthly purpose, in that it is used to satisfy one’s personal needs. Before beginning to build a sacral culture, we have to alter our consciousness or mindset. In Greek, this mental change is referred to as μετανοια (metanoia), a word that could be translated into English as “repentance”. Otherwise, we will be limited to approaching symbols either through games, or through magic.

The game-based approach, which is the more innocuous of the two, is typical for people with intellectual inclinations who veer toward atheism. The element of the game or theatrical role-play has always been present in secular jewelry. Of course, like any other imitation, a game brings no satisfaction. The rules have to be constantly updated and sophisticated in order for the players not to grow bored. Here, symbols provide the bored mind with ample food for thought. However, the line between a game and spiritual reality is very thin and may be crossed unwittingly. By coming into in touch with strange sacred symbols out of sheer curiosity, we risk tapping into hostile forces capable of causing tangible damage. Such incidents are fairly well-known. The Fathers of the Church warned against wearing alien sacred symbols, as do the spiritual leaders of other religions and esoteric teachings. This may be true even if the actual symbol is quite positive. For example, if a person puts on a cross without repenting and undergoing the sacrament of baptism, that is, while still being at the mercy of demons (though, of course, they do not think so), they will be certain to cause harm to themselves, either physically or spiritually. If the cross is canonical, the demons will perceive it as a certain deviation and a threat to their peaceful existence. This will be followed by an immediate response on their part, which will at first produce discomfort, and, later, disrupt the wearer’s health, both mental and physical. Perhaps that is why such incidents tend to be short-lived. On the other hand, by putting on a so-called designer cross, which distorts the Christian truth to a certain extent, we participate in blasphemy, which does spiritual damage. Of course, this is only true for crosses that can be considered in a Christian context. However, the most dangerous approach to symbols is the magical one, which is common to rational-minded people whose religious awareness has awakened just enough for them to believe in the existence of God and the spiritual world. In this case, the symbol, and, accordingly, that which it represents produce a psychological dependence. In other words, we willingly reject our God-given freedom and agree to be programmed by occult forces. Even the signs of the zodiac, which seem harmless at first sight, can connect us to astrological forecasts, and, worst of all, the latter may actually start to come true.

The magical approach is very favorable for the market, where the manufacture and sale of addictive products is highly profitable. This is evident from the example of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. The various amulets and charms one can see in stores are, in a sense, “opium for the people” or, in the words of the Holy Fathers, “prisons for the soul”. Unfortunately, the magic mindset is typical for many who consider themselves Orthodox Christians. It manifests with regard to both the church sacraments and personal sacred objects, including crosses, icons or rings, which are perceived as mere amulets. In this case, one attaches the greatest importance to the formal canonicity of these items, as confirmed by the appropriate inscription, church consecration or blessings given by church officials, and to correct use, and forgets to do that which is truly crucial: to observe God’s commandments and repent. Magical manipulations with a sacred symbol do not lead to merging with the prototype, as union implies reciprocity, and neither do they bring the desired protection, so that by performing them, we simply deceive ourselves. The desire to be protected from disease and other misfortunes is natural for every human being, but we must remember that, for a Christian, the degree of their protection is determined by the extent to which they live in the Lord. In other words, maximum protection comes with holiness, which is the calling of every Christian.

The rationalistic, magical approach to sacred items produces a more formal attitude toward their creation. Those who do not seek spiritual union with God do not need genuine sacred items, since these can bring a certain confusion and discomfort to their guil-ridden souls. These people are content with simulations, which are produced en masse according to the laws of the market and cater to every whim of the client. Here, the form is created not by the spirit, but by computers and other high-tech devices. It is useful to recall how the Church has responded to certain canonical violations during periods of spiritual decline. As an example, let us quote just one definition of the Holy Synod, dated 31 January 1885: “persons of non-Christian confession are forbidden to paint icons, make crosses and other similar objects of Christian worship, as well as to engane in any and all trade in the aforesaid objects”. Today, we can see that, instead of a violation, these actions have become the norm. Of course, bans are not within the nature of the Church, which should be governed by love and freedom, and they are even less common in contemporary society with its lenient attitude to sin. We may not admit that certain natural laws exist, but we are unable to prevent them from working. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.” (1 Cor. 10:23).

Prepared in accordance with:

(“Russia in Jewellery”, №4 (16) July 2008, pp. 46-51)

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