Friday, April 8, 2011

Booty: Intimate Treasures

We are not often privy to the things that our ancestors held most dear, at least as far as their bodies and souls were concerned. Clothes, for the vast majority of history, were made from natural fibers and were worn to virtual rags by the bulk of any population. Even the most glorious gowns and suits needed special tending to bring them through to the modern age. They are relics of bygone eras that actually touched the people who came before us even more closely than cooking and eating utensils, drinking vessels, clay pipes and tools.

That is why I was particularly interested in this tiny article from Yahoo! News about the wreck of the Spanish treasure galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha. The ship, carrying an unimaginable fortune from the New World to Spain, wrecked in a hurricane in 1622 and settled to the bottom of the Caribbean off Key West, Florida. $450 million in booty from the ship was recovered in 1985 but part of the wreck has yet to be found and so the search goes on.

The continued investigation turned up an intimate treasure that may very well have belonged to a passenger aboard the doomed galleon. A gold chain, 40 inches long and made up of 55 links, was found on the 23rd of March in the general area where Nuestra Senora de Atocha went down. The chain still has a gold cross with enamel work and a gold medal engraved with the figure of the Virgin Mary on one side and a chalice on the other attached to it. This piece of religious devotion would have been blessed by a priest and worn close to the body just as Catholics continue to do today, but the fact that the entire artifact is made of gold points to a wealthy owner.

Using the circa 1630 portrait of Isabel de Borbon as an example of how the Spanish nobility dressed at the time, it is easy to imagine how a gold cross and medal on a slim chain could get lost in the mix. As R. Turner Wilcox notes in The Mode in Costume:

Also part of the costume were large jeweled brooches, ropes of pearls and knotted loops of ribbon with jeweled points. Both men and women wore heavy gold necklaces set with gems. A favorite feminine ornament was the ornate brooch with pendant, also pearl earrings.

Most of this ostentatious couture would have come from the New World, either as raw material or as already worked pieces. But the gold chain found near Key West would have been worn close to the body, under the shirt or chemise, as a constant reminder of God’s blessing upon the wearer. Most people would not take such religious jewelry off to sleep or bathe.

While it is possible that one of the sailors on the Nuestra could have worn the find it is highly unlikely. More probable is that the chain belonged to a lieutenant, captain or even admiral. But it is also possible that it belonged to a lady passenger. Wealthy girls were often sent from colonies in the New World back to Spain, particularly for advantages marriages, and the treasure flotillas were considered the safest transport at the time.

That’s just speculation on my part but, regardless, such an intimate treasure can only be thought of as priceless. Although the treasure hunters quote its value as $250,000, the chain, cross and medal are worth far more to history.

Header: Isabel de Borbon y Medicis, portrait c 1630 in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain and the Nuestra shipwreck chain from Yahoo! News


Ray Rousell said...

Very interesting post, the cross is very beautiful.

Pauline said...

Ahoy Ray and thankee! I have to agree; the workmanship is incredible. Let's hope this amazing artifact ends up in the right place (for instance, where a lot of people can appreciate it).

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! As usual, you post tells us far more than the article ever could, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Everything in a tangent with me, if I'm honest, but I was happy to find a reason to post that beautiful painting of Isabel de Borbon (or Bourbon en Francais).

Le Loup said...

Aharr, a treasure trove me heartees! Now that's more like it.
Good post, thanks for the link Pauline.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Le Loup! Aye, mate; not a soul can argue with the size of that haul!