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 treasure.”
The value of the materials lay in their symbolic character. 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.
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. The twenty-fourth chapter is entitled 'On the virtues of carbuncle, or Ruby, and how it is the master of all stones. The twenty-sixth chapter is "On the virtues and properties of the Stone of Diamond":
“…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 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.
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.
Born and raised in Moscow, Russia, Elena Lemeneva has a BA in Museum Studies (Moscow, Russian State U on Humanities), and an MA and a PhD in Medieval Studies (Budapest, Hungary, Central European U). During her years at CEU, Elena contributed to the two internationally acclaimed EU-sponsored cultural heritage projects, Medieval Manuscript Manual and Self-Representation in the Middle Ages (http://medstud.ceu.hu/index?id=10&cikk=241), of which the "Symbolic Virtues of Gems" is part. Having moved to Canada in 2003, Elena has taught Medieval Studies at Wilfrid Laurier U (Waterloo, ON) and is now completing her licentiate at the Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies in Toronto. Her interests include medieval Catholic preaching, theology, daily life, and history of science (see one of her recent translations from the Renaissance natural philosophy at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/telesio1565.html). She also collaborates in an international interdisciplinary project
http://glossae.net/aimed at creating a free online database of authoritative commentaries on the Bible -- the central text of the European Middle Ages. Elena lives in Toronto with her art historian husband and two children.