The Conversion of Saul

WB.171     about 1550 • Enamelled gold, precious gems • hat-ornament

Tells the dramatic biblical story of the conversion of Saul into the apostle St Paul.

Curator's Description

Hat jewel; gold; circular; modelled in relief, enamelled and set with diamonds and rubies; Conversion of Saul, on ground with horse rearing in front of him, behind stand four soldiers; two horsemen in distance; God in clouds; scene in front of building; three columns formed of table diamonds, between them are three figures; horses and figures enamelled white; figures with gold cuirasses, two carry shields of diamonds; five loops for attachment or suspension; plain back engraved with inscription.

This object was collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

4.5 cm wide, 4.5 cm high, 0.7 cm deep, and it weighs 35g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

[See below for previous Tait catalogue entry on this object from 1986. This object is now considered to be South German, c.1550.]

Text from Tait 1986:-

Origin: Attributed to an Italian or Spanish workshop, middle of 16th century.

Provenance: None is known, apart from that contained in the later engraved inscription on the reverse.

Commentary: No other Renaissance jewel of this subject has been recorded. This difficult subject appears not to have been so widely popular as many others with artists of the Renaissance, though both Raphael and Michelangelo produced their own very different solutions. Indeed, in the opinion of most authorities the Michelangelo fresco in the Pauline Chapel of the Vatican, which he painted for Pope Paul in (1534-49) soon after 1540, is one of his most awe-inspiring achievements, in which the head of St Paul is an idealised self-portrait expressive of the pain of spiritual sight.

The jewel was described as “Italian, 16th century” when it was first published in Read 1902, but this view was modified in Dalton 1927 to read “Italian (German?), 16th century”, though no reasons were given. The possibility of a German origin was evidently not entertained by Dame Joan Evans, who not only illustrated it as “probably Italian, middle of sixteenth century” but cited it as an example of the enseignes that correspond with Cellini's own description of how he and Caradosso made these tiny gold-enamelled sculptural bas-reliefs and of the enseignes listed in the 1516 Inventory of Lucrezia Borgia (Evans 1970, pp. 84-5, fig. 46a). With equal justification, one might quote from the 1566 Inventory of Jewels at the Medici court (preserved in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence, MS. no. 352) where, for example, a jewel of this type, for which a Cornelio Merman had been paid in 1561, was listed (item 11):

“Una medaglietta d'oro, aovata entrovi, di rilievo smaltato, fetonte fulminato sul carro, di sopra uno rubinetto tavola . . . nel rovescio un compartimento smaltato, basso drentovi due cervi.” (“One small oval medallion of gold, on which is found in enamelled relief Phaeton in his chariot struck by a thunderbolt, above a small table-cut ruby ... on the reverse, an enamelled compartment, on the background are two stags.”)

It seems very probable that the fashion for men to, wear these hat-jewels with figure scenes continued throughout the third quarter of the sixteenth century and, consequently, the date of this Waddesdon hat-jewel may be later than the middle of the century rather than earlier.

Certainly, at the French court under strong Italian influence Etienne Delaune (c. 1518-c. 1583) was producing designs for oval jewels of this type, twenty-six of which are preserved in the Albertina, in Vienna (see Hackenbroch 1979, fig. 180 A-L). It is clear from these designs that the scale of the figures to the oval is very similar and that table-cut gemstones were intended to be set into the architectural backgrounds of the scenes in very much the same way as occurs on the pilasters of this Conversion of St Paul hat-jewel.

Furthermore, the two lost oval hat-jewels (Tait 1962, p. 242, pl. XLVIII A-B), meticulously recorded in the pictorial Inventory of Jewels belonging to Anna, the wife of Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria (Cod. Monacencis, icon. 429, Staatsbibliothek, Munich) by Hans Mielich between 1552 and 1556, are also very similar, not only in the treatment of the figures, in the use of the gemstones within the architectural background, but also in the design of the simple black-enamelled frames with legends and scroll motifs in gold. The two Latin inscriptions, which have a form of lettering identical with that used on this hat-jewel, are, firstly, AD • NVLLIVS • PAVESCIT • OCCVRSVM (‘He fears the attack of no-one(?)’), and secondly, QVAE LATVERE DIV IN LVCEM NOSTRA ATTVLIT ÆTAS (‘Things that have remained hidden, our age has brought to light’). In the second inscription Hans Mielich has depicted no spacers between the words except for one elaborate spacer after .ETAS to indicate where the legend begins and ends. Although the inscriptions have recently been inaccurately transcribed, the scenes have been identified as 'Hercules standing before Eurystheus' and 'The discovery of the writing of Homer by Numa Pompilius' (Hackenbroch 1979, p. 76). Hans Mielich has faithfully depicted the four projecting loops on each of these hat-jewels and, again, the effect corresponds closely with the St Paul hat-jewel, but, curiously, few enseignes have survived with their tubular frames bearing Latin inscriptions. One coloured drawing by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) has survived in which, quite exceptionally, he has included the frame - a black-enamelled tubular frame with an elegant scroll design in gold - as well as the circular relief forming the centre of the hat-jewel; in this case Holbein has followed his normal practice of incorporating the accompanying Latin inscription within the central design itself (for full publication of this drawing and its relation to English jewels of c. 1530-50 see Hugh Tait, An Anonymous loan to the British Museum: I, Renaissance Jewellery, ‘The Connoisseur’, 154, November 1963, pp. 147 ff., fig. 3.). Similarly, these two lost hat-jewels that once belonged to Anna of Bavaria cannot have been made later than c. 1550, but for a discussion of their possible origin in Italy rather than in France see cat. no. 6 (pp. 82-3).

Additional confirmation of the growing fashion for jewels of this type in the Germanic areas north of the Alps comes from the engraved designs by the Antwerp-born artist, Erasmus Hornick, published in Nuremberg in 1562. Hornick was a great disseminator of other styles, adding here and there his own interpretation, especially of details, but often content with adapting - rather than initiating - a type of jewellery that had already been de rigueur in court circles for some time. Three medallion-shaped designs for pendants, preserved in the Kunstsammlungen, Veste Coburg, are particularly relevant because, like his six roundels with scenes from the Loves of the Gods (also at Veste Coburg) which were likewise published in Nuremberg in 1562, the architectural backgrounds are set with table-cut gemstones and the treatment of the figures, though different, seems to be derived from these French and Italian examples. Despite their relevance, these Veste Coburg engravings are not, in fact, cited in support of a recently published attribution of the Conversion of St Paul hat-jewel to “Augsburg, c. 1560” (see Hackenbroch 1979, figs 357 and 428-9; curiously, a different attribution is given in the text (p. 140) where it is stated that “the same Nuremberg workshop may also have been responsible” for it). Certainly, the key documentary piece cited by Hackenbroch - the Pax with the arms of the Elector, Daniel Brendel von Homburg, Archbishop of Mainz (1555-82), in the Munich Schatzkammer (Hackenbroch 1979, fig. 353) - has neither the same scale nor the same figure style nor the same technique of gem-setting as the hat-jewel of the Conversion of St Paul.

If, therefore, it can be said that this evidence combines to point not to a German but to a French or Italian origin and, most probably, to a date no later than the 1560s, then one must consider whether any credence can be given to this jewel's traditional association with that colourful character, the impetuous Don John of Austria. He would have been just twenty years old in 1565 and, undoubtedly, would have possessed and worn the fashionable Spanish court attire, including the customary hat-jewels, during his youthful years. In Spain religious scenes on jewellery probably remained in vogue longer than elsewhere, and the military career of Saul and his subsequent hardships and martyrdoms would have made the scene of his Conversion highly appropriate for a young Catholic prince.

Don John of Austria (1545-78) was the half-brother of Philip II of Spain - his mother being Barbara Blomberg. He became a prominent figure at the Spanish court and grew steadily more ambitious. At the age of twenty-six his international reputation was made with the victory over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. He had been put in charge of the combined troops and fleets of the Triple Alliance, receiving the flag of Admiral-in-Chief from Cardinal Granvelle in Naples before joining the mighty armada in the harbour of Messina. Within two months his victory had crippled the Ottomans and given the Christian powers the most brilliant triumph they had ever achieved against this terrible enemy. For the next few years Don John of Austria remained in the Mediterranean with his headquarters in Naples, enjoying a dissolute life. In 1576 he was summoned by Philip II to take up the government of the Netherlands and, with the utmost reluctance, he finally agreed. On his journey through France incognito he had highly important meetings with the Queen-Mother, Catherine de’Medici, and with the duc de Guise, but his ‘joyous’ state entry into Brussels on 1 May 1577 was a hollow achievement that led to bitter failure. His pleas for recall were ignored and, even though his nephew and old school-comrade Alessandro Farnese, heir to the Prince of Parma, arrived with an army of veteran troops early in 1578, his successes were so limited that he continued to suffer frustrations at every turn. By October that year he lay at Namur, dying of a strange fever at the age of thirty-three.

Although there is nothing known to confirm the early history of this jewel (as it is recorded in the engraved inscription on the reverse), nevertheless it would seem very probable that this jewel should have survived in such an unaltered condition because of its preservation in the Capizucchi family, one of the ancient noble families of Rome, traceable back to medieval times. They appear to have been an offshoot of the Counts of Thunn, a prominent noble family in the Tyrol (see Vincenzo Armanni, ‘Delia nobile et antica famiglia de Capizucchi, Baroni Romani, diramata da un medesimo stipite con quella dei Conti di Tun, prosapia grande e famosa della Germania’, Roma, Tinassi, 1668). This work was re-printed in 1675 with the addition of two accounts - one by Cornelius Margarini and the other by Giovanni de Luca.

The family of Capizucchi played an increasingly significant role in public life in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Indeed, the two brothers, Camillo and Biagio Capizucchi, acquired military fame in the Papal service in the second half of the sixteenth century and, in particular, Camillo played a conspicuous role at the Battle of Lepanto against the Turks. (See Annibale Adami, ‘Elogii storici dei due Marchesi Camillo e Biagio Capizucchi, celebri guerrieri del secolo passato’, Rome, 1685; also ‘La Storia delle Famiglie Romane di Teodoro Amayden’ (pub. Collegio Araldico, Rome, 1910, p. 251.) Camillo, who held the title of Marquis, went on to play a prominent part in the political arena of his time, as the memorial in the Church of Santa Croce, in Sienna, faithfully records:




It would seem, therefore, that the inscription on the reverse of this hat-jewel could have been added by a member of the Capizucchi family, who knew the family archives intimately and was fearful lest this episode in the history of this hat-jewel should be lost. As far as can be judged, nothing is known that conflicts with or invalidates that family tradition. Thus, for example, in 1567 when Don John of Austria was twenty-two, a Spanish goldsmith's apprentice, Philip Ros, submitted a drawing - a beautiful delicate watercolour - as a design for a circular jewel of the Adoration of the Shepherds; it is preserved in the ‘Llibres de Passanties’, folio 225 (Barcelona, Instituto Municipal de Historia de la Cuidad) and was illustrated in colour in 1972 (see Muller 1972, col. pl. II). The treatment of the sky and of the figures in relation to the architectural setting is generally similar, though far more ambitious. Whilst there is no direct connection with the St Paul hat-jewel, the coloured design of 1567 is evidence of the prevailing Spanish taste for historiated jewels of this type and, therefore, of the strong Italian influence that was probably as great a factor in Spain as it was in France, especially in this area of jewellery designs.

Don John of Austria's opportunities to create a memorable or spectacular occasion by presenting the jewel from his own cap, in recognition of Camillo Capizucchi's outstanding performance, would have increased after he became Admiral-in-Chief in 1571. Certainly, it was a well-established practice to make such presents as the entries in the Italian inventories of court jewels in the sixteenth century make clear. After the victory of Lepanto, there was huge booty for Don John of Austria and his men. Indeed, the division of the spoils caused such strife between the Venetians and the Spaniards that a second battle nearly broke out and Don John of Austria was held much to blame for the troubles. The most likely occasion on which this hat-jewel would have been presented was, undoubtedly, the Battle of Lepanto, but family traditions need to be corroborated before they can be fully accepted.

Perhaps it is not entirely without significance, therefore, to discover that on the extremely rare occasions when playing-cards have been found cut down to form packing material to place within a piece of Renaissance jewellery, the jewels have been of Spanish origin (see Muller 1972, p. 127, fig. 198a-c, for a pendant of enamelled gold and miniatures which belongs to the Hispanic Society of America, New York, and contains a very comparable kind of coloured playing-card); in a footnote (no. 458) Priscilla Muller refers to a second example in “a reliquary pendant of otherwise pedestrian quality”, where the playing-card fragment was very similar, and also to fragments of letters and accounts from Toledo dated 1627 being similarly used in another larger reliquary.

Finally, the error in the spelling of the word, COMTRA, in the legend on the frame has to be considered, since in theory it would have been possible to make a new frame in the late nineteenth century for this jewel basing its design on the Mielich drawings of the two lost hat-jewels in the Duchess Anna's possession in Munich in 1552-6. Spelling mistakes do occur on items of Renaissance jewellery which have an impeccable history, like the Girdle Prayer Book Covers of c. 1540 (see Tait 1962, pp. 232 ff., fig. XLI a); on the other hand, not only would a 'faker/ restorer' have had to create this highly appropriate legend, but in setting it out in roman upper case lettering there is little scope for illegibility and the faker's error would have been easily spotted since the word is very commonly understood. However, during the Renaissance craftsmen were not necessarily literate and would copy Latin legends blindly- but, of course, it is easy to relax the concentration when copying and an N could quickly become an M. This particular error, therefore, does not seem to present sufficiently sound grounds for condemning the frame as a faked copy or pastiche of the Hans Mielich drawings.


  • Charles Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 171, pl. XLII
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 171, illus. p. 37
  • Joan Evans, ‘A History of Jewellery, 110-1870’, London, 1953 (rev. edn 1970), p. 85, pl. 46a
  • Hugh Tait (ed. And contrib.), ‘The Art of the Jeweller, A Catalogue of the Hull Grundy Gift to the British Museum: Jewellery, Engraved Gems and Goldsmiths’ Work’, London, 1976, p. 176, no. 289, illus.
  • Yvonne Hackenbroch, ‘Renaissance Jewellery’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, New York and Munich, 1979, p. 141, fig. 357, col. pl. XI
  • Hugh Tait, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: The Legacy of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild to the British Museum’, London, 1981, p. 50, col. pl. XA
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 1., The Jewels', British Museum, London, 1986, no. 3, pl. VIC, figs. 42-45
  • Dora Thornton, 'A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest', British Museum, London, 2015, pp.204-211.
  • References

    1. Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
    2. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    3. Tait 1986: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; I The Jewels, London, BMP, 1986

Go to the Collection Online page for this object?