Skip to main content

Precious Stones

PRECIOUS STONES

From prehistoric times precious stones have been employed universally as personal ornaments and amulets and as elements of adornment in religious and profane art and architecture in general. Men of past ages prized many precious stones because they believed that they possessed magical properties and gave special protection and strength to their owners. An accurate classification of precious stones before the rise of modern chemistry at the end of the 18th century is impossible. Many of the stones mentioned as precious in ancient and medieval writers were not precious in the strict sense but merely resembled genuine diamonds, rubies, emeralds, etc.

Employment in Judaism and Early Christianity.

There is frequent mention of precious stones in the Bible, the jeweled breastplate of the high priest, for example, being described in detail [see precious stones (in the bible)]. In the Greco-Roman civilization, in which Christianity appeared and developed, the demand for precious stones was intense, and the amount of jewelry displayed or worn by possessors approached the fantastic. Pagan moralists attacked such ostentation in adornment as morally wrong, but their censures were not effective. The early Christian writers and Fathers of the Church did not condemn the use of precious stones as such, but warned repeatedly against the evil of luxury so often associated with them and, above all, against belief in their magical properties. Thus, Clement of Alexandria denounced luxury in dress and adornments, mentioning the excessive fondness for gold ornaments and precious stones. He admitted,

however, that women married to wayward husbands might need adornment to make themselves more attractive to such men, and he recognized the necessity of signet rings or seals for protecting property. But pagan devices on seals, especially those of a licentious and magical character, were strictly forbidden. The Christian should use a dove, a fish, a ship, an anchor, or a fisherman (see Clement, Paedagogus 2.12:118129 and, esp. 3.11:5760). All these symbols have important Christian meanings, and the references to them in literary texts are confirmed by the large number of seals and engraved precious stones brought to light by archeology (see "Gemmes," Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. F. Carroll, H. Leclerq, and H. I. Marrou, 15v. (Paris 190753), esp. 816-). Luxury in jewelry was apersistent evil, however, and all the Christian writers of East and West found it necessary to attack it again and again in the strongest terms.

Alleged Magical Properties of Gems. Diamonds were said to give protection against poison and evil powers; agate and sapphire, against despair and envy; emeralds and amethysts, against spells, hail, and locusts; serpentine, against snake bites. The sardonyx was a good luck stone. The beryl gave knowledge of the future and promoted marital harmony. The ruby furnished strength and was a charm against poison and evil spirits. Blood jasper stopped bleeding, and limonite aided pregnancy. Numerous other stones were regarded as efficacious in similar ways (see Pliny, Hist. Nat. bk. 37, and Apuleius, Apol. 31). For many centuries, precious stones in powdered form have been used as medicines. Symbols or formulas inscribed on gems gave them an important role in astrology and other kinds of magic. The employment of month-stones or birthstones, however, is largely modern. As is evident from medieval lapidaries, above all from the classic De lapidibus of Marbod of Rennes (10351123), with its description of 60 stones, belief in the marvelous powers of precious stones was widespread in the Middle Ages. It is still far from dead in the Eastor even in the West.

Bibliography: w. m. f. petrie, j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 10:224225. j.h. emminghaus, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 195765) 4:659. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie (Paris 190753) 6.1: 794864, with copious illustrations and bibliog. a. hermann, "Edelsteine," Reallexikon für Antike Christentum ed. t. klauser [Stuttgart 1941 (1950 )] 4:505550, with bibliog. o. rossbach, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1910) 7.1:10521115. p. schmidt, Edelsteine (Bonn 1948). a. furtwÄngler, Die antiken Gemmen, 3 v. (Leipzig 1900; repr. 1963), of fundamental importance. j. evans, The Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages (Oxford 1923). l. thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 v. (New York 192358) 1:775782. s. thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 6 v. (rev. and enl. ed. Bloomington, Ind. 195558), see index under "Jewels" and the names of the respective precious stones.

[m. r. p. mcguire]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Precious Stones." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 14 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Precious Stones." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/precious-stones

"Precious Stones." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/precious-stones

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.