Legends of Gem Stones
Margaret Burgon Klemp
The Briolette of India is now part of the Henry Winston collection in New York. Even if recent research has discovered that it was cut much, much later than gem enthusiasts had originally thought it is a beautiful and valuable stone. Legends about its origins persisted for hundreds of years -- especially the story about Richard the Lionheart. The Lionheart put a lot of trust in diamonds as a method of securing his safety on his many journeys into unsafe and hostile territory. In the 12th century it was thought that this beautiful gem belonged to Richard's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was supposed to have given it to him for protection when he embarked on his third crusade. If Richard toted any diamonds in his saddlebags it didn't do much for his physical well-being. He was injured several times in battle, and nearly lost his life in the Middle East. He was captured and imprisoned in Europe when he was going back to England after some of his Crusade battles. He finally died at the siege of Chaluz in France, when a boy sent an arrow into the area between his shoulder and his neck.
In times past scholars claimed that the agate represented John the Baptist, while diamonds represented the omnipotence of God, and Jesus was likened to a single diamond. We know that Pliny the Elder, Roman soldier and historical author grouped garnets and rubies, and called them "carbuncles" because they looked like burning coals. To the Prophet Mohammed The Black Stone in the Kaaba symbolized the human soul shining beneath the throne of God. Stone talismans were used for healing, as well as pulverized metals and minerals.
The great mid-eastern scientist and scholar Avicenna (980-1037) wrote a whole handbook on the various precious minerals. According to him the hyacinth and lapis lazuli were supposed to be used as cardiac remedies. He also wrote about the ruby. "It possesses," he said, "the peculiar quality of giving pleasure and strength to the heart. As for where it takes effect, the ruby obviously reaches the heart via the blood; the closer it is applied to the location of the illness the more effective it is."
The great Frankish king, Charlemagne, believed in the spiritual power of gems and minerals. He believed that the sapphire symbolized heaven and eternal life. His chief advisor was Alcuin of York who studied under The Venerable Bede, well-known 7th century author and historian. Alcuin pointed to the Bible where sapphires were mentioned in connection with heaven in the Old Testament. He felt that the sapphire was an image of heaven, and that it stood for heavenly virtues. Interest in the spiritual qualities of gemstones was passed down to Charlemagne's successors. His grandson, Charles the Bald ordered the Codex Aureus to be written in 870. The craftsmen decorated the cover with emeralds, sapphires and pearls using a Byzantine design. The book was donated to an abbey in Regensburg in Southern Germany.
Theophilus Presbyter (1070-1125) was a Benedictine monk who wrote extensively on the applied arts of his time. He was very detailed in his descriptions, and he paid particular attention to how artistic works were developed. One of the subjects he covered was the procedure of using gems in painting and stained glass productions. Letters were created in gold, silver, copper and brass. He made the suggestion of rubbing the letters with onyx or bloodstone to assist in the retention of shine and colour. He felt that gems were used in the arts to glorify God. In a tract that he wrote on stained glass painting he wrote, "If you wish to use precious stones of another colour in the portraits in windows, on crosses or books or include jewelry decorating the garments on painted glass with using lead settings, for example, with hyacinth or emerald, proceed as follows: choose the place in which to position the stone, take pieces of light blue grass, shape them correspondingly to the hyacinths to fit correctly, cut the same out of green glass emeralds and arrange them so that there is always one emerald between two hyacinths. When these are carefully fitted into place and set, so paint thick pigment with a brush around them but in such a manner that no paint flows between the glass surfaces. Fire them with other pieces in an oven and they will stick to one another and never fall apart."
Most of the scholars, scientists and doctors of antiquity were men. However, in the 12th century a remarkable woman left her mark on history. She was Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). She wrote extensively about theology, nature and medicine. She was placed in a convent by her family for her own protection because of the political climate of the time. There she studied with a learned nun who was an anchoress. These individuals spent most of their life in seclusion and dedicated themselves to prayer and study. Hildegard was plagued by illness most of her, and this led her to a scientific investigation of the healing properties of gemstones. She suffered from persistent, chronic migraine headaches which led to sickness, paralysis and bouts of blindness. During these times it was common to use pulverized metals and stones as healing agents by physicians. References she found in the Bible and other written spiritual works were the first places she looked for information about precious metals and stones. She then dedicated her life to the study of natural history and medicine. She was also interested in music and produced quite a number of musical lyrics during her lifetime. In her work Physica she discusses information about the healing powers of minerals and gemstones, and attaches each of them to one of the four elements: Air, fire, earth and water.
The Legends of the Stones do not diminish with age. New legends appear, but of a different nature. With modern technology and a greater understanding of natural processes we learn more about how gems are really made. That in itself is legendary.
Gems: A Lively Guide for the Casual Collector, Daniel J. Dennis Jr., 1999 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, New York
Gemstones: Symbols of Beauty and Power, Eduard Gubelin and Franz-Xaver Erni, Geoscience Press, Tucson, Arizona