Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth


``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D


Passage from "The Cathedral," by J.K. Huysmans
Published in 1898


In this passage, Durtal and his friends, in the course of a discussion of medieval paintings, talk about the symbology of gemstones.


"Precious gems are lavishly introduced in the works of the primitive painters," observed the Abbé Plomb. "They are set in the borders of dresses, in the necklets and rings of the female saints, and are piled in triangles of flame on the diadems with which painters of yore were wont to crown the Virgin. Logically, I believe we ought to seek a meaning in every gem as well as in the hues of the dresses."

"No doubt," said Durtal, "but the symbolism of gems is much confused. The reasons which led to the choice of certain stones to be the emblems, by their colour, water, and brilliancy, of special virtues, are so far-fetched and so little proven, that one gem might be substituted for another without greatly modifying the interpretation of the allegory they present. They form a series of synonyms, each replacing the other with scarcely a shade of difference.

"In the treasury of the Apocalypse, however, they seem to have been selected, if not with stricter meaning, with a more impressive breadth of application, for expositors regard them as coincident with a virtue, and likewise with the person endowed with it. Nay, these jewellers of the Bible have gone further; they have given every gem a double symbolism, making each embody a figure from the Old Testament and one from the New. They carry out the parallel of the two Books by selecting in each case a Patriarch and an Apostle, symbolizing them by the character more especially marked in both.

"Thus, the amethyst, the mirror of humility and almost childlike simplicity, is applied in the Bible to Zebulon, a man obedient and devoid of pride, and in the Gospel to St. Matthias, who also was gentle and guileless; the chalcedony, as an emblem of charity, was ascribed to Joseph, who was so merciful and pitiful to his brethren, and to St. James the Great, the first of the Apostles to suffer martyrdom for the love of Christ; the jasper, emblematical of faith and eternity, was the attribute of Gad and of St. Peter; the sard, meaning faith and martyrdom, was given to Reuben and St. Bartholomew; the sapphire, for hope and contemplation, to Naphtali and St. Andrew, and sometimes, according to Aretas, to St. Paul; the beryl, meaning sound doctrine, learning, and long-suffering, to Benjamin and to St. Thomas, and so forth. There is, indeed, a table of the harmony of gems and their application to patriarchs, apostles, and virtues, drawn up by Madame Félicie d'Ayzac, who has written an elaborate paper on the figurative meaning of gems."

"The avatar of some other Scriptural personages might be equally well carried out by these emblematical minerals," observed the Abbé Gévresin.

"Obviously; and as I warned you, the analogies are very far-fetched. The hermeneutics of gems are uncertain, and founded on mere fanciful resemblances, on the harmonies of ideas hard to assimilate. In medival times this science was principally cultivated by poets."

"Against whom we must be on our guard," said the Abbé Plomb, "since their interpretations are for the most part heathenish. Marbode, for example, though he was a Bishop, has left us but a very pagan interpretation of the language of gems."

"These mystical lapidaries have on the whole chiefly applied their ingenuity to explaining the stones of the breast-plate of Aaron, and those that shine in the foundations of the New Jerusalem, as described by St. John; indeed, the walls of Sion are set with the same jewels as the High Priest's pectoral, with the exception of the carbuncle, the ligure, agate, and onyx, which are named in Exodus, and replaced in the Book of Revelation by chalcedony, sardonyx, chrysoprase, and jacinth."

"Yes, and the symbolist goldsmiths wrought diadems, setting them with precious stones, to crown Our Lady's brow; but their poems showed little variety, for they were all borrowed from the Libellus Corona Virginis, an apocryphal work ascribed to St. Ildefonso, and formerly famous in convents."

The Abbe Gévresin rose and took an old book from the shelf.

"That brings to my mind," said he, "a hymn in honour of the Virgin composed in rhyme by Conrad of Haimburg, a German monk in the fourteenth century. Imagine," he continued, as he turned over the pages, "a litany of gems, each verse symbolizing one of Our Mother's virtues.

"This prayer in minerals opens with a human greeting. The good monk, kneeling down, begins:-

"'Hail, noble Virgin, meet to become the Bride of the Supreme King! Accept this ring in pledge of that betrothal, O Mary!'

"And he shows Her the ring, turning it slowly in his fingers, explaining to Our Lady the meaning of each stone that shines in the gold setting; beginning with green jasper, symbolical of the faith which led the Virgin to receive the message of the angelic visitant; then comes the chalcedony, signifying the fire of charity that fills Her heart; the emerald, whose transparency signifies Her purity; the sardonyx, with its pale flame, like the placidity of Her virginal life; the red sard-stone, one with the Heart that bled on Calvary; the chrysolite, sparkling with greenish gold, reminding us of Her numberless miracles and Her Wisdom; the beryl, figurative of Her humility; the topaz, of Her deep meditations; the chrysoprase of Her fervency; the jacinth of Her charity; the amethyst, mingling rose and purple, of the love bestowed on Her by God and men; the pearl, of which the meaning remains vague, not representing any special virtue; the agate, signifying Her modesty; the onyx, showing the many perfections of Her grace; the diamond, for patience and fortitude in sorrow; while the carbuncle, like an eye that shines in the night, everywhere proclaims that Her glory is eternal.

"Finally the donor points out to the Virgin the interpretation of certain other matters set in the ring, which the Middle Ages were regarded as precious: crystal, emblematic of chastity of body and soul; ligurite, resembling amber, more especially figurative of the quality of temperance; lodestone, which attracts iron, as She touches the chords of repentant hearts with the bow of her loving-kindness.

"And the monk ends his petition by saying: 'This little ring, set with gems, which we offer Thee as at this time, accept, glorious Bride, in Thy benevolence. Amen.'"

"It would no doubt be possible," said the Abbé Plomb, "to reproduce almost exactly the invocations of these Litanies by each stone thus interpreted." And he reopened the book his friend the priest had just closed.

"See," he went on, "how close is the concordance between the epithets in the sentences and the quality assigned to the gems.

"Does not the emerald, which in this sequence is emblematical of incorruptible purity, reflect in the sparkling mirror of its water the Mater Purissirna of the Litanies to the Virgin? Is not the chrysolite, the symbol of wisdom, a very exact image of the Sedes Sapientiae? The jacinth, attribute of charity and succour vouchsafed to sinners, is appropriate to the Auxilium Christianorurn and the refugium peccatorum of the prayers. Is not the diamond, which means strength and patience, the Virgo potens? - the carbuncle, meaning fame, the Virgo praedicanda? - the chrysoprase, for fervour, the Vas insigne devotionis?

"And it is probable," said the Abbé, in conclusion, as he laid the book down, "that if we took the trouble we could rediscover one by one, in this rosary of stones, the whole rosary of praise which we tell in honour of Our Mother."

"Above all," remarked Durtal, "if we did not restrict ourselves to the narrow limits of this poem, for Conrad's manual is brief, and his dictionary of analogies small; if we accepted the interpretations of other symbolists, we could produce a ring similar to his and yet quite different, for the language of the gems would not be the same. Thus to St. Bruno of Asti, the venerable Abbot of Monte Cassino, the jasper symbolizes Our Lord, because it is immutably green, eternal without possibility of change; and for the same reason the emerald is the image of the life of the righteous; the chrysoprase means good works; the diamond, infrangible souls; the sardonyx, which resembles the blood-stained seed of a pomegranate, is charity; the jacinth, with its varying blue, is the prudence of the saints; the beryl, whose hue is that of water running in the sunshine, figures the Scriptures elucidated' by Christ; the chrysolite, attention and patience, because it has the colour of the gold that mingles in it and lends it its meaning; the amethyst, the choir of children and virgins, because the blue mixed in it with rose pink suggests the idea of innocence arid modesty.

"Or, again, if we borrow from Pope Innocent III his ideas as to the mystical meanings of gems, we find that chalcedony, which is pale in the light and sparkles in the dark, is synonymous with humility; the topaz with chastity and the merit of good works, while the chrysoprase, the queen of minerals, implies wisdom and watchfulness.

"If we do not go quite so far back into past ages, but stop at the end of the sixteenth century, we find some new interpretations in a Commentary on the Book of Exodus by Corneille de la Pierre; for he ascribes truth to the onyx and carbuncle, heroism to the beryl, and to the ligure, with its delicate and sparkling violet hue, scorn of the things of earth, and love of heavenly things."

"And then St. Ambrose regards this stone as emblematical of Eucharist," the Abbé Gévresin put in.

"Yes; but what is the ligure or ligurite?" asked Durtal. "Conrad of Haimburg speaks of it as resembling amber; Corneille de la Pierre believes it to be violet-tinted, and St. Jerome gives us to understand that it is not identifiable; in fact, that it is but another name for the jacinth, the image of prudence, with its water of blue like the sky and changing tints. How are we to make sure?"

"As to blue stones, we must not forget that St. Mechtildis regarded the sapphire as the very heart of the Virgin," observed the Abbé Plomb.

"We may also add," Durtal went on, "that a new set of variations on the subject of gems was executed in the seventeenth century by a celebrated Spanish Abbess, Maria d' Agreda, who applies to Our Mother the virtues of the precious stones spoken of by St. John in the twenty-first chapter of the Apocalypse. According to her, the sapphire figures the serenity of Mary the chrysolite shows forth Her love for the Church Militant, and especially for the Law of Grace; the amethyst, Her power against the hordes of hell; the jasper, Her invincible fortitude; the pearl, Her inestimable dignity-"

"The pearl," interrupted the Abbé Plomb, "is regarded by St. Eucher as emblematic of perfection, chastity, and the evangelical doctrine."

"And all this time you are forgetting the meaning of other well-known gems," cried Madame Bavoil. "The ruby, the garnet, the aqua-marine; are they speechless?"

"No," replied Durtal. "The ruby speaks of tranquility and patience; the garnet, Innocent III tells us, symbolizes charity. St. Bruno and St. Rupert say that the aquamarine concentrates in its pale green fire all theological science. There yet remain two gems, the turquoise and the opal. The former, little esteemed by the mystics, is to promote joy. As to the second, of which the name does not occur in treatises on gems, it may be identified with chalcedony, which is described as a sort of agate of an opaque quality, dimmed with clouds and flashing fires in the shadows.

"To have done with this emblematical jewelry, we may add that the series of stones serves to symbolize the hierarchies of the angels. But here, again, the meanings commonly received are derived from more or less forced comparisons and a tissue of notions more or less flimsy and loose. However, it is so far established that the sardstone suggests the Seraphim, the topaz the Cherubim, the jasper means the Thrones, the chrysolite figures the Dominions, the sapphire the Virtues, the onyx the Powers, the beryl the Principalities, the ruby the Archangels, and the emerald the Angels."

"And it is a curious fact," said the Abbé Plomb, "that while beasts, colours, and flowers are accepted by that symbolists sometimes with a good meaning and sometimes with an evil one, gems alone never change; they always express good qualities, and never vices."

"Why is that?"

"St. Hildegarde perhaps affords a clue to this stability when, in the fourth book of her treatise on Physics, she says that the Devil hates them, abhors and scorns them, because he remembers that their splendour shone in him before his fall, and that some of them are the product of the fire that is his torment.

"And the saint added, 'God, who deprived him of them, would not that the stones should lose their virtues He desired, on the contrary, that they should ever be held in honour, and used in medicine to the end that sickness should be cured and ills driven out.' And, in fact, in the Middle Ages they were highly esteemed and used to effect cures."

"To return to those early pictures," said the Abbe Gévresin, "in which the Virgin emerges like a flower from amid the gorgeous assemblage of gems, it may be said as a general thing, that the glow of jewels declares by visible signs the merits of Her who wears them; but it would be difficult to say what the painter's purpose may have been when, in the decoration of a crown or a dress, he placed any particular stone in one spot rather than another. It is, as a rule, a question of taste or harmony, and has nothing, or very little, to do with symbolism."

"Of that there can be no doubt," said Durtal, who rose and took leave, as Madame Bavoil, hearing the cathedral clock strike, handed to the two priests their hats and breviaries.

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