ENGRAVED GEMS IN THE MIDDLE AGES

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Engraved gems in the Middle Ages of the subjects of pagan mythology was forbidden by law, but the old ideas were retained for many years, and small objects like cameos or intaglios were carried about concealed upon the person.

Later on, when all knowledge of classical art had sunk into oblivion, such stones became prized not only for the subjects engraved on them, which their medieval owner seldom understood, but also for the fact that they were supposed to possess special talismanic virtues.

The majority of these gems were mounted as rings or as seals of secular and ecclesiastical personages of rank. Preserved among the Harleian MSS. in the British Museum is a thirteenth-century, which contains instructions for the wearing of various stones, and for the composition of the different metals of the rings in which they were to be set.

A proof of the firm establishment of the Romans in Britain is afforded by the number of their gems brought to light in medieval times, while the decay of the art of gem-engraving in the Middle Ages is shown by the fact that the Harleian MS. always refers to these gems as objects “to be found and not made. …

A stone engraved in one manner you should suspend about the neck, as it enables you to find treasures, the impression in wax of another stone will cause men to speak well of you.” The engraving of a dove with a branch of olive in its mouth should be mounted in a silver ring, and another gem should be placed in a ring of lead.

From these and similar writings it is clear that one of the objects aimed at by the medieval authors was to define the different virtues of the vigils engraved upon precious stones. Such ideas, not previously unknown, as, for example, among the Gnostics, were no doubt stimulated by the Crusades, whereby the study of alchemy and the interest in Oriental mysteries became spread throughout Europe. Leonardus, as late as the six- tenth century, observes that stones ” if engraved by a skillful person or under some particular influence, will receive a certain virtue. . . .

But if the effect intended by the figure engraved be the same as that produced by the natural quality of the stone, its virtue will be doubled, and its efficacy augmented.” We see thus that the talismanic ideas respecting precious stones were attached as much to their engraving as to the stones themselves.

Owing to the complete decline of the glyptic art in the Middle Ages, antique cameos and intaglios, on account of some fancied assimilation in subject or idea to Christian symbolism, were occasionally used for devout subjects. Together with the general ignorance of classical art, and the consequent attempts that were made to give the pagan representation upon antique gems a Christian signification—frequently in a very forced and curious manner—there appears to have been a certain appreciation of their beauty.

When small relics, such as particles of the wood of the cross, or larger relics, as bones of the saints, were enclosed either in portable reliquaries or in costly shrines, such receptacles were not infrequently encrusted with ancient cameos and intaglios, as representing the very choicest objects which the fervent devotion of the age could select for this sacred purpose.

The Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne and the Treasure of Conquest” are still enriched with many fine examples of the gem-engraver’s art, and the magnificent gold shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, long since despoiled, was formerly mounted with numerous cameos, all probably antique.

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Author: connielimon2014

Bead Jewelry Artisan, mother of one daughter and grandmother of two grandsons, daughter of Korean War Veteran.

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