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