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:
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: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.
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.'
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.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.
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.
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:
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.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.
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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