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Precious Stones - Ecclesiastical

( Originally Published 1880 )



THE Holy Scriptures furnish us with an account of the jewels which distinguishes the ephod of Aaron. This is described as having a front part and a back part, instead of shoulder-pieces. On the top of each shoulder was an onyx stone set in gold sockets, each having engraved upon it six of the names of the children of Israel, according to the precedence of birth, to memorialize the Lord of the promise made to them (Exod. xxviii.6, 12, 29). The breastplate, or gorget, ten inches square, was made of the same sort of cloth as the ephod, and doubled, so as to form a kind of pouch, or bag, in which the Urim and Thummim were placed (Exod. xxxix. 9). The external part of this gorget was set with four rows of precious stones—the first row, a sardius, a topaz, a carbuncle, and a diamond ; the third, a ligure, an agate, and an amethyst ; the fourth, a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper—each set in a golden socket, and having engraved on them the name of one of the sons of Jacob.

Among the heathens, from the earliest times, jewels were reckoned among the most grateful offerings to the gods, and therefore dedicated in profusion in their temples. " This custom," observes the Rev. C. W. King, " flourished down to the fall of Paganism, but the donations in the shrines of imperial Rome were of a very different class to the tiny jewels extorted from the devotion of the poverty-stricken natives of Attica. Precious stones in their native state, and engraved gems, still continued to pour into the sacred treasuries. Every example of unusual beauty or rarity became a thankoffering to the patron god of its possessor. Pompey consecrated to Jupiter the rarest specimens of minerals found in the Pontic treasury. Cæsar, an enthusiastic gem-collector, gave six caskets of his own choicest intagli to his progenetrix, Venus. The largest block of crystal ever seen (says Pliny) was that dedicated in the Capitol by Livia Augusta. In such form, also, did the gems appear, described by Lucian, in his "Dea Syria," as decorating the celebrated statue of that goddess, Astarte :—" Precious rubies colourless (diamonds), water coloured (beryls), fiery (rubies); the sardonyx stones, hyacinths, and emeralds, brought hither by Egyptians, Indians, Ethiopians, Medes, Armenians, and Babylonians."

Other gems, remarkable for their magnitude, were consecrated by engraving upon them the head of some particular deity. The most renowned monument of such a dedication—furnishing us, as it does, with a list of the contents of a wealthy Roman lady's jewel-box —is the inscription given by Montfaucon, cut upon the pedestal formerly supporting a statue of Isis, as is supposed, discovered at Alicante. It records that " by divine command Fabia Fabiana had dedicated in honour of her grand-daughter Avita, deceased, 1 12 lbs of silver plate; also, ornaments in the diadem, one unio (a pearl of spherical shape, and vastly the more valuable) and six pearls, two emeralds, seven beryls, one carbuncle, one hyacinth, two rubies. In her ears, two emeralds, two pearls. On her neck, a quadruple row of thirty-six pearls, eighteen emeralds. In two circlets on her legs, two emeralds and eleven cylindri. In her bracelets, eight emeralds and eight pearls. On her little finger, two rings with diamonds ; on the next finger, a little ring with gems, emeralds, and one pearl ; on the top joint of the same finger, a ring with an emerald. Upon her shoes, eight cylindri."

The spread of Christianity produced a change in this, as in every other respect. When the heathen idols and temples were overthrown, churches and convents arose, and religion displayed itself with a magnificence unknown to idolatry. The goldsmiths and jewellers made their most beautiful objects for the church. Constantine the Great presented the most costly offerings to the Roman churches ; and the manufacture of these rich articles, in which precious stones of the greatest rarity and beauty were profusely employed, did not diminish when he made Byzantium the seat of the Roman Empire. This monarch may be said to have been the especial protector and encourager of the jeweller's art.

In the reign of Clovis, King of the Franks (fifth century), we read that the bishops and abbots carried a gold cross, a gold mitre, and an episcopal ring, enriched with precious stones. The bones of the Christian saints were laid in golden reliquaries set with precious stones. The vessels of the altars were similarly costly. A gold chalice adorned with jewels, found at Gourdin, near Chalons-sur-Saone, in 1846, and now in the Museum of Antiquities in Paris, shows the great beauty and perfection of the jeweller's art at the commencement of the fifth century.

The name that ranks the highest among early gold and jewel artificers is that of St. Eloi, the minister of Dagobert I., King of France. This eminent ecclesiastic, born about the year 588, received the name of Eligius (chosen by God), as a prognostic of his great destinies. He was apprenticed to a goldsmith named Abbon, at Limoges, who had the privilege of coining money for the town. He. had (says St. Ouen, the biographer of Eloi) a genius for other things, and, after improving himself, he went to Normandy, and became acquainted with the treasurer of King Clotaire, named Bobbon. It was by the execution of a beautiful work of art that Eloi gained the favour of the king, after whose death he was retained at court by Dagobert, but in 631 founded a monastery, to which he retired, and taught the jeweller's art to the monks. He enriched with gold and precious stones the tombs of St. Martin of Tours and St. Denis. According to his biographer, the garments of St. Eloi were covered with gold and precious stones, his girdle was blazing with jewels, and his purse was ornamented with rare pearls. This ostentation, however, was in his early life. He died in 659, and was buried in a coffin of gold and silver. Wondrous miracles were performed at his tomb, which, like the shrine of Thomas Becket in after ages, became a place of pilgrimage, and the depository of costly offerings, most of them enriched with precious jewels.

The clerical costume of the seventh century may be seen in the church of Malmesbury, Wilts, in the figure of St. Peter. The date given by Fosbroke is 675. The work is Saxon. There are double keys in the right hand of St. Peter ; book, with jewels, of the New Testament, in the left : there are also jewels on the border of the neck.

Pope Leo III, in the eighth century, was a munificent benefactor to the Church. Vessels of rich plate and jewels were profusely bestowed. He gave to the high altar of St. Peter a covering spangled with gold, enriched with precious stones.

Pope Paschal, early in the ninth century, was also a liberal dispenser of precious objects to various churches. A cross with golden emblems is mentioned as one gift, with representations of Our Saviour surrounded by archangels and apostles of wonderful beauty and richness, ornamented with pearls. He had also a robe worked with gold and gems, being the history of the virgins with lighted tapers.

The accounts of the rich embroidered vestments, robes, sandals, girdles, tunics, vests, palls, common in churches during the early ages, would almost surpass belief, but for the minuteness with which they are enumerated by old writers. Pearls and precious jewels were literally interwrought in garments.

A satirical poem written soon after the Conquest describes the luxury of the monks under the idea of a monastery constructed of rich meats and costly gear:

"Stonis preciuse and golde,
Their is saphir, and vniune,
Carbuncle and astiune,
Smaragde, lugre, and prassiune,
Beril, onix, topasiune,
Ametiste and crisolite,
Calcedun and epetite."

In the twelfth century the jewellers' and gold-smiths' art was fostered in France by Suger, Arch-bishop of St. Denis. He proposed always, as models, the works of St. Eloi. He made a rétable of gold, enriched with precious stones, and a golden crucifix of great value, radiant with enamels and precious stones, for the Abbey of St. Denis. Workmen from Lorraine, to the number of five or seven, worked alternately two years on this costly object ; but jewels became scarce, and Suger began to fear that the work would not be finished, when three monks offered to sell him a quantity of magnificent jewels, which had formerly adorned the gold table-service of Henry I. of England, that Thibaut, Count of Champagne, nephew of the king, had given to various convents to purchase indulgences and prayers. Suger, at a trifling cost, purchased these precious stones, which were of enormous value. It is supposed that the magnificent crucifix was broken up by the Leaguers in 1590.

During the Norman period, the ornaments used by the ecclesiastics were so costly and extravagant, that sumptuary laws were made to repress them. From illuminations we see that the chasuble was richly bordered with precious stones, as were also other portions of the dress.

The princely splendour of Thomas â Becket, in the reign of Henry II., the profusion of jewels worn by himself and his attendants on his progress to Paris, caused the rustics to exclaim, " What a wonderful personage the King of England must be, if his chancellor can travel in such state ! " The accounts of his magnificence in that city are so extraordinary, that Lord Lyttelton, in his " History of King Henry II.," declares them to be incredible."

Henry III. was prodigal in his gifts to the Church. Rich ornaments were made by his own goldsmith for the use of Westminster Abbey. In the twenty-third years of his reign he directed Fitz Odo to make " a dragon in manner of a standard or ensign, of red samit, to be embroidered with gold, and his tongue to appear as if continually moving, and his eyes of sapphires, or other stones agreeable to him, to be placed on the church against the king's coming thither." In the twenty-fourth year of his reign he gave the Bishop of Hereford a mitre, splendidly enriched with precious stones, costing "'£82-a sum equal, at the present rate of money, to £1,230 ; and in the following year he ordered the Keeper of the Exchequer " to buy as precious a mitre as could be found in the city of London, for the Abbot of Westminster."

The richly-embroidered garments of the clergy —which were nearly covered with gold and precious stones—during the reign of this monarch, occasioned Pope Innocent III. to exclaim, " Oh, England, thou garden of delights ; thou art truly an inexhaustible fount of riches ! From thy abundance much may be exacted ! " And he forthwith proceeded to get as much as he could by forwarding bulls to several English prelates, enjoining them 'to send a certain quantity of such embroidered vestments to Rome, for the use of the clergy there.

The high prelates were buried with their jewels, as appears from what William of Malmesbury relates of Richard Grant, Archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 1231, that he was laid, in full canonicals, in the grave. In the night the coffin was opened by certain persons, who laboured under the impression that the magnificent ornaments with which the corpse was adorned, might be more profitably employed by the living. They endeavoured to extract the jewels, but the archbishop, by a miracle, proved too strong for them, and resisted successfully the efforts made to rob him of his buried treasures.

In the succeeding reigns of our English sovereigns, the same extravagance of ecclesiastical dress and ornament prevailed. It excited, in the reign of Ed-ward III., the rebuke of Chaucer. " Many of the clergy," remarks the Ploughman to the Canterbury Pilgrims, " have more than a couple of mitres, ornamented with jewels like the head of a queen, and pastoral staffs of gold set with jewels as if made of lead :

" They be so rooted in riches That Christ's poverty is forgot.

Some wear a mitre and a ring
With double worsted well dressed,
With royall mete and riche drinke,
And ride on courses as a knight,
With hawkes and with hounds eke,
With brooch or ouches on his hood."

In the will of William Courtenay, Archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 1396, he leaves to his metropolitan church his cope braided with pearls, and a green vestment adorned with gold, etc. Another archbishop, Thomas Arundel, in I4I4 bequeathed to the same cathedral, amongst other rich gifts, a mitre enriched with divers gems and precious stones, a large pastoral staff of silver, besides various jewels. The inventory of his goods shows the luxury and magnificence of the prelates of those times. At New College are preserved the curious jewelled ornaments and remains of a precious mitre, comprising nearly the whole of the rich decorations of the mitra pretiosa of the founder, William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester (died 1404). The groundwork was of silken tissue, closely set with seed-pearls, and upon this were attached, at intervals, plates of silver gilt, set with gems and pearls, as likewise bands formed of jewelled ornaments, alternated with small enamelled plates of silver, beautifully coloured, representing animals and grotesques. There are also considerable remains of the beautiful crocketed crest, chased in silver gilt, and the jewelled extremities of the pendants are likewise preserved. The most curious part of these fragments is an M crowned, the monogram of the Blessed Virgin, set with gems, and partly enamelled with the subject of the Annunciation introduced in the open parts of the letter.

The effigy of John de Shepey, Bishop of Ro-chester, who died in 1360, represents him wearing a mitre elaborately wrought and set with jewels. His gloves are jewelled on the back.

The list of sacred ornaments which composed the furniture of the Chapel Royal in the reign of Richard II., includes a "portepax tout d'or" of the most splendid description, set with diamonds, pearls, and sapphires.

During the reign of Richard III the satirists attacked the clergy for their lavish extravagance. The higher ecclesiastics wore daggers at their jewelled girdles.



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