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Pendant with a serpent coiled around a tree and two skull cameos late 16th cent. with later additions

Onyx: white on dark grey, diamonds, emeralds, rubies, Hungarian opals, natural saltwater pearls, gold | RCIN 51008

Mary, Queen of Scots' Outer Chamber, Palace of Holyroodhouse

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  • Double-sided, openwork pendant in gold and enamel.

    Obverse: a tree on a platform in the centre with a naked female torso in white enamel sitting in the canopy. A serpent in green, yellow and black enamel is coiled around the tree. Four table-cut rubies and a long rectangular-cut emerald in box settings are at the base of the tree. Two enamel bands bearing the inscriptions A qui and IDISE (?) connect the lower stone. Opaque white and light-blue, translucent green and blue enamel scrollwork and foliage surround the central scene and are set with two miniature onyx cameos depicting skulls. The emerald is flanked by pearls with blue enamel petal-like settings. The tree canopy is set with three rubies in box settings and opal cabochons in claw settings. Ten pearls, partly on studs and partly suspended as pendants, are randomly attached. With a later gold wire suspension loop.

    Reverse: the backs of the three ruby settings of translucent dark-blue enamel with the words ‘vie et mort’ (life and death) in white enamel.

    The rather elongated rectangular emerald appears to have been cut down in order to fit the area it was intended to cover. The method by which the setting is attached suggests it is a later addition. It is possible that when this part of the pendant was adapted, the small white enamel panels with inscriptions were taken from another piece and made to fit the space which would explain why they appear to be incomplete. The pearls flanking the emerald are attached with gold wire similar to the suspension loop and were added when the pendant was changed. The studded and suspended pearls along the rim are randomly attached and not original.

    The French inscription ‘vie et mort’ and the skull cameos are a memento mori. The serpent in the Tree of Knowledge symbolises Sin and the pendant may symbolise the vanquishing of sin.

    When this pendant was presented to Her Majesty The Queen in 1977 it was reputed to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots. Some elements, for example the skull cameos and the rubies in box settings, appear to be of that period. The opal cabochons with claw settings are also found on Elizabethan and Stuart jewellery.

    Although there is no contemporary documentary evidence to support the connection with Mary, Queen of Scots, the 3rd Lord Cardross was the great-great-grandson of John Erskine, 18th Earl of Mar, Regent of Scotland 1571-2 and Guardian of James VI and I. The association was perhaps made during the nineteenth century when relics of the Queen were much sought after. It was probably at that time that the pendant was altered.

    Two enamel bands bearing the inscriptions A qui and IDISE(?). Reverse words 'vie et mort' in white enamel.

    Text adapted from Ancient and Modern Gems and Jewels in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen, London, 2008

    Typescript and manuscript note: ‘PENDANT REPUTED TO HAVE BEEN OWNED/BY MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS. Inherited, according to family tradition, with other Stuart relic through Frances, daughter of Hon. William Erskine son of the 3rd Lord Cardross, who married 1748 James Loch of Drylaw - her daughter Margaret married 1769 James Loch of Halshaw. In 1802 John Buchanan of Carbeth married, Margaret daughter of James Loch. His son, John Buchanan of Carbeth had, inter alia, a daughter Henrietta Charlotte, who married 1872 John Stirling, Stirling of Gargunnock, grandfather of the present owner. W. Stirling 18-10/77; Miss W. Stirling; by whom presented to Queen Elizabeth II, 1977.’

  • Medium and techniques

    Onyx: white on dark grey, diamonds, emeralds, rubies, Hungarian opals, natural saltwater pearls, gold