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To my delight, I discovered that, against all odds, the crown of the Aztec Empire is (apparently) still extant.  Allegedly, the Conquistadors hung onto Montezuma’s original feathered headdress and brought it back to Europe where it found its way into the hands of the Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family who put it in a scary museum somewhere in Vienna. However, as I tried to find out more about the crown of Montezuma, I ended up reading more about the Aztecs.  Now, I always regarded the Aztecs as a death-cult society built on top of a base of cruel slavery and vicious warfare.  The truth is more complicated.  The “empire” was really a grand alliance of three neighboring city-states from the Valley of Mexico. The Triple Alliance (as the Aztecs called themselves) conquered the surrounding tribes and kingdoms through war and political/cultural means, yet whenever this alliance took over a new region they left the nobility and social structures intact and “ruled” through extracting tribute and demanding other cultural concessions.  Their “flower wars” were not traditional wars of conquest familiar to say, the Romans or the French, but highly stylized affairs…however the (pre-ordained) losers were indeed sacrificed to appease the astonishing yet bloodthirsty gods of the Aztec pantheon.

We will come back to all of this later this week.  For right now, let’s get back to the crown of Montezuma II.  This beautiful item is remarkable in many ways, but, um, being “real” isn’t necessarily one of them (speaking of which, the original is pictured at the top of the post , and the other pictures are museum reproductions).  The provenance of this headdress (if it is a headdress) is highly disputed.  Not only does it not match the (questionable) illustrations we have of Aztec headdresses, but also the 16th century records about the piece have some holes .  According to lore the crown was seized during the conquest of Mexico (ca. 1520) and sent back to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.  The piece is then recorded in the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II in Ambras (near Innsbruck Austria) in 1575.  It became an object of fascination in the mid to late 19th century. Since it is made from delicate iridescent feathers (which fade over time) the crown was “restored” in 1878.  the European restorers used kingfisher feathers and restored it as a standard (a sort of flag as opposed to a “Moorish hat” (which is how it was recorded in the Grand Duke’s collection).

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The restored crown is over a meter in height and 1.75 meters across (4 feet by 6 feet).  it is crafted of layers of feathers, which seem to have conferred certain spiritual significance in the afterlife (and in the Aztec court, where special feather workers were kept to work with innumerable caged birds).  The layers of feathers are described in detail on Wikipedia:

“The smallest is made from blue feathers of the Cotinga amabilis (xiuhtōtōtl) with small plates of gold in the shapes of half moons. Behind this is a layer of Roseate spoonbill (tlāuhquechōlli) feathers, then small quetzal feathers, then a layer of white-tipped red-brown feathers of the squirrel cuckoo, Piaya cayana, with three bands of small gold plates, and finally two of 400 closely spaced quetzal tail feathers, some 55 cm (22 in) long.”

To conclude, I have written about a emperor’s crown which is not necessarily a crown for an empire which was not necessarily an empire.   Everything in this post is suspect. Our fundamental view of the Aztecs (who didn’t even call themselves that) seems as questionable as this imperial crown.  Yet, despite these very real questions, the crown of Montezuma today has become the focus of an intense political campaign to return the piece to Mexico.  Austria and Mexico exchange diplomatic statements about it and teams of scientists and ethnologists study the fragile treasure. Whether it actually belonged to Montezuma or not, the piece definitely seems to be an Aztec artifact of enormous significance and equally great beauty.   It is as splendid–or perhaps more splendid– as any of the other crowns I have written about, yet it is sad too, with its bloody history, its ongoing mysteries, and the contemporary conflict which swirls around it. The fact that it is made of fragile feathers of  long gone birds gives it additional beauty and pathos.

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Peridot Tiara

Peridot Tiara

Peridot is the birthstone of fiery August so I thought it would be fitting to feature a crown made from the yellow-green stones. Unfortunately chartreuse does not seem to be the go-to color for royal headwear, but with some searching I found the splendid tiara pictured above. The piece was apparently made for Princess Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg by Kochert, the court jeweler to the Habsburg family, sometime in the 1820s. It is most associated with Princess Isabella of Croÿ (1856-1931), who married Archduke Friedrich, grandson of Henrietta.

Peridot Parure Set

Peridot Parure Set

The tiara is a transformer—it has a matching peridot necklace which can be disassembled and attached to little crown as standing pendants. There is also a large peridot brooch for anyone bold enough to wear it. This sort of matching morphing jewelry set is known as a parure and was especially popular in the nineteenth century. Of course times change and tastes shift. In 1937, the peridot parure was sold to another noble, Count Johannes Coudenhove-Kalergi (1893-1965). The counts daughter chose to live in the United States and dispense with the trappings of nobility—so the tiara set in a safety deposit box until her death in 2000, when a Hollywood jeweler purchased it from her estate. They loaned it to celebrities until they could find a private buyer. Here is a picture of Joan Rivers wearing the peridot necklace at the 2004 Golden Globes ceremony… _peridot4Good grief!

 

The Crown of Saint Stephen (AKA The Holy Crown of Hungary)

The crown of Saint Stephen (also known as the Holy Crown of Hungary) is not merely fancy headgear worn by the monarch of Hungary. By ancient tradition, the crown has legal personhood and is the monarch of Hungary—its wearer is simply the vehicle for its sovereign authority. For example, Charles Robert of Anjou had to be crowned thrice as Charles I of Hungary “because it was not until he was crowned with the Holy Crown, in 1310, that the coronation was seen as legally binding.”

Saint Stephen Wearing the Crown of Saint Stephen (not made until a century after his death)

The crown’s name comes from the myth that Saint Stephen, the first king of Hungary, offered the crown to the Nagyboldogasszony–the Virgin Mary in 1031 AD as he lay on his deathbed with no obvious heirs. The crown is actually of more recent–and more prosaic lineage. It is a kamelaukion-type crown, typical of Byzantine rulers of the 12th century and was probably fashioned during the reign of Béla III (1172-1196) by Byzantine goldsmiths. It consists of three separate pieces: the lower diadem or corona greca, the upper bands called the corona latina, and the cross at the apex–which was added much later (probably during the sixteenth century). Constructed out of solid gold, the crown is decorated with nineteen enamel paintings as well as semi-precious stones, genuine pearls, and almandine (which is a garnet-family mineral–not some sort of nut paste). There are four ornamental pendants hanging from chains on each side of the crown and one pendant dangling from the back.

Because the Crown of Saint Stephen so thoroughly embodies sovereignty over Hungary, it has been stolen, moved, hidden, or annexed many times. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 when Hungary attempted to throw off the Austrian yoke and be free of the Hapsburgs, the crown was spirited away by Lajos Kossuth, the theatrical leader of the resistance. Kossuth buried the crown in a wooden coffer in a willow forest, near Orşova in Transylvania. It was not until 1853 that it was dug up (along with the other royal jewels) and returned to the Austro-Hungarian emperor’s royal castle in Buda. During the age of nationalism and strife surrounding the first and second World Wars, the crown became the focus of right wing Hungarian propaganda. Miklós Horthy the pro-fascist regent of Hungary from 1920-1944, tied the crown to his regency and to the concept of regaining control of the so-called Lands of Saint Stephen. Horthy allied Hungary to Nazi Germany in order to attain his goal of control over certain Carpathian territories.  Hungary paid a dreadful price for the alliance:being first attacked in 1944 by its nominal German allies and then by the red army and the allied armies. On 4 May 1945, the U.S. 86th Infantry Division (the “blackhawks” of the Danube) captured the Crown of Saint Stephen. For most of the cold war, the crown sat in Fort Knox, Kentucky until Jimmy Carter returned it to the Hungarian people in 1978.

What? How did Jimmy Carter get into this story?

The crown’s most distinctive feature, its crooked cross, was added during the sixteenth century by metal workers less gifted than the original makers. The cross was not meant to be crooked—some unnamed person sloppily stowed the crown in a trunk and bent the crucifix by closing the lid too quickly.

Just look at the cross! This is why you can't have nice things....

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