With the spread of Christianity and the collapse of the Roman Empire, the fashion for wearing head wreaths and diadems, probably considered ostentatious and deeply charged with pagan connotation, gradually disappeared. Crowns remained the symbol of power worn by royalty (see image 1), but we have to wait until the Middle Ages to see the return of tiaras in the shape of garlands of floral motifs, chaplets or bandeau worn around the head, frontlets and circlets of leaves, roses or trefoils worn as symbols of wealth and status.
The enduring appeal of the tiara | Part II - Developments in design to the Napoleonic period
In this second part of our survey we cover the period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the early 19th century.
By the end of the 13th century, the coronal (circlet), consisting of a gold band surmounted by a series of fleurons variously encrusted with pearls and precious stones, had become the badge of rank proper for a king and princes, noblemen and noblewomen, knights and esquires and their wives and daughters (see image 2). Coronals were certainly worn at court and at festivals, both solemn and light-hearted but also on more ordinary occasions by royal and princely ladies. A coronal was amongst the wedding gifts a bride might expect from her father or bridegroom, a gift she would wear on her wedding day.
Tiaras disappeared again during the Renaissance when women chose to wear their hair elaborately dressed and pinned with gem-set ornaments or entwined with strands of pearls and band of stones, and later with gem encrusted aigrettes worn in combination with feathers (see images 3 and 4).
It was only in the last quarter of the 18th century that tiaras came back in the form of naturalistic sprays and wreath of flowers which soon morphed, under the influence of Neoclassicism, stimulated by archaeological discoveries in Pompeii and Herculaneum, into formal wreaths of laurel leaves and pediment-shaped diadems.
Napoleon Bonaparte, who lacked the aristocratic background of his predecessors, sought to endorse his regime by association with Imperial Rome, and as a Roman Caesar, chose to be crowned with a formal gold wreath of laurel leaves. The painting Le Sacre de Napoléon by Jacques-Louis David captures the moment in Notre Dame on 2nd December 1804 when Napoleon, wearing a diamond laurel leaf tiara, crowns his wife Josephine who kneels in front of him wearing a diamond pediment tiara. Behind Josephine, Napoleon’s sisters are in attendance, clad in lavish jewels, their humble origins elevated to royalty by sumptuous tiaras of classical inspiration (see images 5, 6, 7 and 8).
Contemporary tiaras made all over Europe conform to this style which remained throughout the 1810s. They tend to be formal and symmetrical in design, decorated with motifs taken from classical antiquity: these include pediments, palmettes, laurel leaves, ears of wheat, volutes and Greek-key patterns (see images 9 and 10).
Set with pearls and diamonds, the most praised gems of the time, or embellished with rubies, emeralds and sapphires, these head ornaments, were designed to indicate the wealth and status, of the wearer (see image 11).
Napoleon’s personal interest in the glyptic art prompted the production of equally stunning, if less expensive examples, set with engraved gems, cameos and intaglios carved in shell or hardstone with scenes taken from classical mythology and surrounded by borders of small pearls or gold filigree and enamel (see images 12 and 13). Worn by high-ranking women, tiaras were not confined to coronations and court or to formal occasions but were worn at weddings too.