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Medieval Jewelry: Fashion and Status



Symbolic virtues of gems

‘Gems’, wrote Alexander Neckham (1157 - 1217), ‘are commended by the wondrous power of their virtues, their sparkling light, and the elegance of their beauty. I call them the miracles of nature, grateful gifts, a delight, a study and a reasure.”

Giovanni da Uzzano, writing in 1440, gives us the opinion of a fifteenth century Florentine merchant about the colours that were most esteemed in his day in precious stones. To quote just few of them:

Fine rubies should be like a pomegranate that is not well ripened, a good emerald will show greener than any other green it is laid beside, a good topaz is like shining gold, and most of them look as if they are split. A good sapphire resembles good azure pigment, and is on the white side, a good aquamarine is like sapphire, but more whitish, a good citrine looks like a peach flower. A good diamond looks like steel and is translucent like glass, and has sharp points, but another sort tends towards yellow, and a third sort looks like crystal, though in shape all three are alike.
The value of the materials lay in their symbolic character as well. The beauty and purity of the precious materials symbolised heavenly perfection: the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21: I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.... It shone with the glory of God and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.... The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass.

A specific literary genre of Lapidarium (from Latin lapis - stone) extensively treated symbolic virtues and properties of stones and minerals. Building on the classical heritage of Pliny, Solinus, and Dioscorides, the Middle Ages developed a strong and vivid tradition of their own. Influential early medieval authors such as Isidore of Seville (d. 620) and Marbode, bishop of Rennes (11th century) stressed the medicinal value of stones and minerals. Ecclesiastical writers concentrated on the spiritual symbolism of the twelve stones of Aaron's breastplate and of the apocalyptic vision of the Heavenly  Jerusalem cited above.  Lapidaries composed by learned university professors like Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) associated properties of stones with astrological phenomena and laid the foundations of late medieval alchemy and magic. All these compositions in one way or another discussed the intimate relationship between stones and their human owners or wearers.

A typical example of a late medieval lapidarium is the one by Raymond Lull. It starts  with a consideration of the six aquae minerales, their impregnation with celestial power, and their alchemical properties. The eighteenth chapter is devoted to the virtues and properties of the emerald, several of which are recorded as confirmed by personal experience. "We saw that as long as we carried it, we healed many suffering falling sickness. By virtue of this stone we also stopped tempests. . . and we tried it on exhausted travellers who immediately recovered from the labours of the long travel.' He prescribed its use for King Robert of Sicily, when troubled by a fit of violent madness, since 'the stone of emerald mitigates the one who wears it, and eliminates impatience from the human body, and resists the Devil, so that he cannot harm by a noxious temptation . . .' The twenty-fourth chapter is entitled 'On the virtues of carbuncle, or Ruby, and how it is the master of all stones.' Its virtues are many and powerful: 'If you wear it on you, neither spiritual poison can harm you, nor air, nor water, however poisonous it would be, nor even the sight of a Basilisk.'
The twenty-sixth chapter is "On the virtues and properties of the Stone of Diamond":

          This stone gives many wonderful virtues to anyone who wears it with dignity: this stone guards him safe from every dream, and reveals him the spirit of wisdom, and enables his intellect to scrutinise and understand many more things, and the divine causes of phenomena spiritual and natural: and it stops or prevents all intruding poisons and cures those whose heart is not strong enough, and fortifies them and, being a bearer of victory, it grants to the one who wears it a honourable victory  over his enemies, and it should be worn enclosed in silver.
Another lapidarium, that ascribed to Sir John de Mandeville, stated that it often happened to a good diamond to lose its virtue through the sin of the one who wore it.

The fact that dozens of lapidaria in Latin and vernacular were in wide circulation by the end of the Middle Ages indicates how popular this reading was. Archeological evidence proves that ideas from the lapidaria influenced medieval tastes as much as the availability of  material. The choice of material for any given piece of jewelry was defined by its economic value, rarity, symbolism, aesthetic notions, and considerations of prestige.

Almandin, for instance, enjoyed particular popularity as a royal gem during the Great Migration Period (early Middle Ages).

In the later period, sapphire took over the superiority. 'The sapphire is the finest of gems, and the most precious and the most suitable for the fingers of kings,' wrote Marbode.

After the serene blue of the sapphire the regal red of the ruby was prized, 'which shines so greatly in the night,' declared Bartholomew the Englishman (fl.1250 - 80), 'that it sends flames into the eyes.' The ruby proper was comparatively rare, though in the fourteenth century it rose in estimation above the sapphire; far commoner and less costly was the balas-ruby whose translucent red shows a blue tint and so was believed to be mined from veins of sapphire.

Emeralds and diamonds were held in almost the same high esteem as rubies: 'emeralds', writes Guillaume de Machaut in 1349, 'make every heart rejoice.'

Sapphire, ruby, emerald, and diamond were the essential repertoire of the medieval jeweller, though the diamond was less used in the early Middle Ages, only beginning to assume something of its modern importance in the fourteenth century. In jewels, as opposed to rings, where a much wider variety of stones was in use, they were the prime stones; even pearls, also highly prized in the Middle Ages, were used not as principal elements in compositions of gems and stones but to frame them, or to set off their pure depth of colour by the contrast of their iridescent white. The garnets, amethysts and Scotch pearls did duty for rubies and pearls in cheaper pieces.

It was commonly held in the Middle Ages that by their very nature stones and minerals had magic potential. For that reason, various gems were worn for prophylactic purposes: to detect poison, to assist childbirth, to prevent epilepsy. However, the magic of jewels bearing an inscription, sign, or figure was much more effective.

The medieval world inherited a large stock of antique cameos and intaglios. These were held in high esteem both for their beauty and for the supposed magic power of  their images. A special kind of lapidarium treated engraved gems and attributed magical virtues to them:

If you find a seal sculpted in black agate that depicts a man, naked and swollen, and another one, well-dressed and crowned, and he holds a chalice in one hand and a plant-branch in another, fit  it into any ring, and anyone with fever who wears this ring will be healed in three days.
Engraved gems were, consequently, in demand for personal ornaments to be constantly worn. The classical subjects of antique engraved gemstones were often interpreted in the light of Christian iconography.

Another way to reinforce the magic of a stone was to inscribe it with a "name of power" or a wonder-working formula:

If you inscribe a ring with the letters T. B. L. N. C. H. V. S. H. A. , it will keep your body intact and safe from any sickness, and mainly from fever and dropsy. In purchases it brings luck, it makes its bearer able and lovable in war and in litigations and in peace and grants him superiority and victory. It helps women in conception and birth. It gives its owner and wearer peace and harmony and wealth, provided that it is worn chastely and honestly.
Thomas Aqunas considered the question whether it was permissible to wear divine words suspended from the neck and decided that it was only allowed if no evil spirits were invoked in the talisman, if the legend contained no incomprehensible words, if there were no deceit and no other agency believed in than the power of God, and if no other character was used than the sign of the Cross, and no faith was placed in the manner in which the talisman was inscribed. In most cases magic inscriptions on medieval jewels went far beyond the limits of the permissible as defined by the Angelic Doctor.

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