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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THE MYSTERY OF PRECIOUS STONES

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ONE of the most curious and interesting facts in connection with the jewelry the Middle Ages is the peculiar respect which seems to have been paid to precious stones. ” In a scientific age,” says Mr. Paton, ” it is difficult to apprehend and sympathize with the state of mind which endowed natural objects with the properties of charms and fetishes.

Before it was the habit to trace phenomena to natural causes, faith in occult powers was strong, and credulity exercised a marked influence on the habits and actions of the people. Precious stones, on account of the mystery and romance attaching to most things of Eastern origin, had long attracted to themselves a superstitious reverence; so that their choice and arrangement, which appear to us merely arbitrary nowadays, had in the Middle Ages a distinct meaning consecrated by traditions dating back from very ancient times.

Every stone, like those which enriched the breastplate of the High Priest, and those which in St. John’s vision formed the foundations of the Heavenly Jerusalem, was supposed to possess special powers and virtues. Abundant proof of this is exhibited in the medieval inventories, where the beauty or rarity of a stone counted for infinitely less in the estimation of its value than the reputed talisman virtue, such as the toad stone, for example, was supposed to possess.

The medieval literature of precious stones wherein is expounded their medicinal virtues or their supernatural powers in baffling evil spirits, is based on a classical poem of about the fourth century a.d., entitled Lithica, which claims to be a statement of their magic properties made by the seer Theodamas to the poet Orpheus.

Similar belief in the virtues of precious stones was still in existence in the sixteenth century, and finds an exponent in Camillus Leonardus, physician to Cassar Borgia, in his work entitled Spectdum Lapidum, published at Venice in 1502.

Even as late as the following century the use of precious stones as charms was more than half sanctioned by the learned, and in his Natural History Bacon lays it down as credible that ” precious stones may work by consent upon the spirits of men to comfort and exhilarate them.”

The learned lawyer and philosopher, indeed, was not in this much superior to the plain and simple folk who still imagined that every precious stone had some mystic value communicable to the wearer. About the same time De Boot, or Boethius, the learned physician to the Emperor Rudolf II, published his famous Lapidary, which Mr. C. W. King recommends as a work worthy of especial study for the properties of stones, and mentions how it “draws a distinction that curiously illustrates the struggle then going on between traditional superstition and common sense.”‘

With the advance of Christianity the representation The foremost interpreter of their mysteries in the Middle Ages was Marbode, Bishop of Rennes {1095-1123), in his De Lapidibus Pretiosis Enchiridion. – King, Precious stones, Treatises on precious stones frequently find a place in sixteenth-century Herbals, and are often accompanied by very spirited woodcuts representing the working of precious stones and the process of adapting them to personal ornaments, together with designs of actual articles of jewelry in which they are set. Two of the finest books of the kind are—an Ortus Sanitafis (Strasburg, circa 1497), and a Kreuterbnch printed at Frankfort in 1536. 100

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