The Alfred Jewel

late ninth-century

Gallery 35 Ancient Rome and Dark Age Europe

 


Focus on the Object

Over the years the Jewel has been the cause of as much speculation as admiration. Precisely what might have been its purpose was a source of much uncertainty: early theories suggested that it might have been the centrepiece of a royal headdress - literally a crown jewel - but the setting seemed inappropriate for that purpose. An alternative, that it was a pendant to be worn round the neck, seemed equally unhappy since it would have condemned the figure on the Jewel to have hung permanently upside-down. More recently opinion has moved towards its being an aestel or pointer, used to follow the text in a gospel book in much the same way that the Yad continues to be used in the Jewish synagogue for reading the Torah. The dragonesque head at the base of the Jewel holds in its mouth a cylindrical socket, within which the actual pointer - perhaps made of ivory - would have been held in place by a rivet (still in situ).

Similarly curious is the teardrop-shaped form of the piece. Current opinion suggests that the Jewel was formed around a pre-existing slab of rock-crystal, possibly a re-used Roman piece. The figure represented in delicate colours in cloisonné enamel, on a plaque protected by the rock-crystal, is also enigmatic. Originally it was interpreted as St Cuthbert, the best-known English saint of the pre-Alfredian period, but it is now thought to represent the sense of sight: a contemporary silver brooch in the British Museum, engraved with figures representing all five senses, shows sight as a man holding two prominent plant-stems or flowers, exactly as on the Alfred Jewel. Such an allusion would be entirely appropriate for an instrument dedicated to the practice of reading.

And finally the inscription: AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN - 'Alfred ordered me to be made'. No one has ever doubted that the sponsor of the piece was King Alfred the Great. He died in 899 after turning the tide of battle against the Scandinavian warriors who threatened the continuing existence of Anglo-Saxon control over much of England. The West Saxon flavour of the prose is entirely in sympathy with such an interpretation. Alfred's achievements were as much cultural as military, and amongst his most effective measures was his commissioning of translations of religious texts into the vernacular. With each of the copies of one of these texts - the Pastoral Care of Pope Gregory the Great, written c.890 - which he dispatched to monasteries throughout England, he is said to have sent also a precious aestel so that it might be read with all due solemnity.