The curious journey of one of the most impressive treasures of the Iberian Peninsula
Today’s jewelry is a subtle art. Comfort prevails over ostentatiousness, and not even kings now wear the exaggerated crowns with which we see them in historical films, or even on the playing cards of the Spanish deck.
But in the past they didn’t go around with so many subtleties. If you had jewelry, it had to be extraordinarily luxurious . Even if they were not to be seen by anyone other than their owner, or to be used in a specific ceremony.
In Spain we have several examples of royal or ecclesiastical treasures, and for me, some of the most interesting and attractive are the Visigoth treasures. Today I want to talk to you about the Guarrazar treasure , not only because of the splendid nature of its pieces, but also because of the hazards that happened until they reached their current residences.
Discovery and tragedy of the Guarrazar treasure
Like so many treasures and material culture of the past, Guarrazar’s treasure was discovered by chance. It was in the middle of the 19th century, thanks to a storm. Such an exaggerated downpour that caused a collapse of the land in some orchards in the Toledo town of Guadamur: the Guarrazar gardens.
When they went to check the damage, they discovered that the landslide had exposed a set of graves. And what is the first thing you do when you go to look for your tomatoes, and you find a medieval tomb? Well, it is clear: open it to see what there is.
They found a concrete block, and when they opened it, they discovered that it hid crosses, crowns, belts, and other pieces of gold and jewelry of extraordinary beauty.
Amazed by the discoveries, they took them to a silversmith in Toledo. Good idea? Well, not too much , really. The latter could not think of anything other than to melt half the pieces . And the other half, they sold to the first person who passed by with some money in their pockets.
Fortunately, it was a Danish soldier, perhaps enlightened, and with greater historical sensitivity, who sold them to the Cluny Museum, where they were able to study them thoroughly.
And of course, the discoverers thought that where they had found that valuable thing, they might as well find more. And they found them, and this time they sold them to Queen Elizabeth II, and then it was the Royal Academy of History, by order of the government, which began to excavate until it found the whole: an old Visigoth monastery, and an impressive treasure composed of:
- Five or six simple gold crowns
- Two especially rich crowns of kings Recceswinth and Suintila
- Votive crosses
Most of the pieces are / were made of gold, set with sapphires, garnets, pearls and other jewels that we will talk about in a moment. And as you can see in the complete image of the Recesvinto crown, the crowns are also votive: that is, they were not worn on the head, but were given to the church as an offering:
This is the most spectacular piece in the collection, and together with Suintila’s, they were one of the pieces that arrived in Paris with the soldier who bought them. The only problem is that in the Cluny museum they wanted to restore them, and at that time, the art of restoration was not so much “let’s recover how it was originally”, but “let’s remake it as we would like it to be”. So after the restoration they came out quite changed: the hanging cross that looks today is not original, instead it had a fibula.
The theft of the Guarrazar treasure and its immense material value
So part of the treasure was melted, and another part, they restored it as they pleased. Two missed opportunities to get to know Visigoth art in depth and with precision, although the essential remains.
But there were still more misfortunes to happen to Guarrazar’s treasure.
The best pieces that were in Cluny, such as the crowns of Recesvinto and Suintila, were recovered by Spain, and kept in the Royal Armory. And in 1921, they broke into robbery.
They took Suintila’s crown, and other pieces and belts, which have never been found, and that some unscrupulous collector must have kept in his house, if not. they have lost forever.
And it is that although it is a historical treasure, it is still a treasure , that is, a collection of extremely luxurious jewels, made with metals noblest, and with the most extraordinary precious stones.
- Hundreds of pearls and mother-of-pearl pieces.
- Hundreds of glasses tinted green, blue, red, etc.
- Hundreds of tiny garnets
- Little Lambs
- And many others, although we have to highlight the 243 blue sapphires .
And I highlight the sapphires because the gemological study has identified them as coming … from ancient Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka!
We tend to think that in the Middle Ages, and more so in those remote times of the 6th and 7th centuries, mobility and the trade of products was not much, but look how These sapphires came far, so that King Recesvinto ordered them to be set in the luxurious crown that he was going to give as an offering.
And it is that the passion for jewelry sometimes leads to unexpected extremes. Today no pieces like the Guarrazar treasure will be made. But at least we have what remains, to be able to admire the incredible jewelery and goldsmith work that our Visigoth ancestors developed.