Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 10, 2023
Brigitte Buettner The Mineral and the Visual: Precious Stones in Medieval Secular Culture University Park: Penn State University Press, 2022. 272 pp.; 35 color ills.; 55 b/w ills. Hardcover $99.95 (9780271092508)

Brigitte Buettner explores the cultural significance of gemstones in the European Middle Ages in her brilliant and eagerly anticipated book The Mineral and the Visual: Precious Stones in Medieval Secular Culture. Medieval inventories of people’s belongings demonstrate that the majority of the net worth of elite individuals often was tied up in gold and silver plate and in jewelry set with sumptuous rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and pearls. The inherent value of these objects tempted owners throughout the centuries to melt them down whenever a financial crisis arose, so only a small percentage of goldsmiths’ gem-laden masterpieces that once existed have survived into modern times. And yet, as Buettner so clearly illustrates, gemstones were among the most highly collected and confected materials of the European Middle Ages.

Buettner approaches gemstones from three different angles—by examining surviving crowns and depictions of regalia, by studying the illustrated written record of medieval lapidary knowledge, and by navigating illuminated accounts of explorers’ journeys to procure precious gemstones for far-flung luxury markets. She emphasizes that medieval writings about the “marvels of the East” played a significant historical role as they propelled colonial exploration in the early modern period; centuries of medieval legends stoked explorers’ dreams of streets paved with gold and gems.

When studied, gems often have been considered within jewelry, as in Ronald Lightbown’s excellent Medieval European Jewellery (Victoria & Albert Museum, 1992), but Buettner shifts the focus to precious stones themselves as a most valuable and symbolic material. At the same time, her study of the networks through which minerals were mined, cut, shipped, and exchanged relates to recent scholarship working toward a “global Middle Ages.” Europe can no longer be considered as a siloed Christian site but must be integrated into a larger understanding of cross-cultural networks of the Middle Ages. Bryan C. Keene’s catalog of the J. Paul Getty Museum exhibition Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World Through Illuminated Manuscripts (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019) epitomizes this approach. Earlier work by Rosamond Mack, Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300-1600 (University of California Press, 2002), also calls attention to such exchange, while Sarah M. Guérin’s “Forgotten Routes? Italy, Ifrīqiya and the Trans-Saharan Ivory Trade” (in Al-Masāq: Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean, 2013) further complicates the understanding of the origins of “exotic” materials that reached Europe. And Buettner’s careful analysis of the accounts of medieval travelers in The Mineral and the Visual speaks with scholarship like that of Mark Cruse in “Novelty and Diversity in Illustrations of Marco Polo’s Description of the World” in Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World Through Illuminated Manuscripts, ed. Bryan C. Keene (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019) and monster studies by Asa Simon Mittman and Susan M. Kim in Inconceivable Beasts: The Wonders of the East in the Beowulf Manuscript (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2013).

The first part of Buettner’s book studies the dazzling late tenth- to twelfth-century Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, the resplendent Theodora Mosaic at San Vitale, in Ravenna (544–48), and the Crown of Bohemia (1344­–47, reworked in the 1370s) in light of the Antique origins of jeweled crowns and the resonant power of the “master stone,” or primary stone, usually on the front of the ruler’s crown. Buettner insightfully connects the long strands of pearls on Theodora’s depicted headdress to the soft cloth ties of the Roman emperor Constantine’s jeweled cloth diadem on a portrait coin from the fourth century. And she argues that decorative arts, here made with gemstones, are no less conceptual than their pictorial equivalents. Gems were visual signs of rulers’ wealth, power, and access to the distant bounty of the earth that projected superlative status and radiant presence. Particularly sign-based were intaglio gems, where figural images were incised onto the surface of the stones, which, in turn, could be set on a crown.

In part two of the book, Buettner closely reads medieval lapidaries, or books about minerals, in terms of the different legends that developed around gemstones. The cataloging of gemstones and their “virtues,” or powers, correlates with other late-medieval encyclopedic projects. One of the most delightful observations that Buettner makes is that lapidaries celebrated mineral action; gems were not static earthly excretions but agency-filled materials whose powers could strengthen or wane. Because precious stones were held almost exclusively by the elite, they signaled kingship and power. And medieval lapidaries built on the knowledge traditions of Vedic India, the ancient Near East, Pharaonic Egypt, as well as Hellenistic, Roman, and Alexandrian geologic studies, and visual representations played a key role in the development of this knowledge.

Albert the Great’s thirteenth-century De mineralibus (Book of minerals), Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s thirteenth-century De proprietatibus rerum (Of the properties of things), and the twelfth-century Liber lapidum (Book of stones) by Marbode of Rennes are key texts in Buettner’s analysis, and they demonstrate their medieval popularity through numerous surviving copies. Like bestiaries and herbal books, lapidaries played a key role in indexing and decoding the natural world and the usefulness of its elements—in other words, building foundations of scientific knowledge. Unsurprisingly but interestingly, some lapidaries, including that by the cleric Marbode of Rennes, flirted with magic and even the occult. Marbode deflected responsibility for potentially transgressive material by writing that he was simply repeating insights from a certain King Evax of Arabia (76–78). Gemstones often were thought to have “chromatic sympathies”—red haematites for problems of the blood, or “Lynx stone,” or amber, to treat excess yellow bile (104–5). And in addition to medicinal properties, stones could improve the human condition—for example, Marbode wrote about gems that could protect travelers, spot thieves, amplify agriculture, or help people orate well.

One easily can see how some of the best-known collectors of the Middle Ages would have marveled at the gems they amassed as they read of the spiritual and material powers of these stones in lapidaries. Perhaps the most famous quote about medieval gemstones comes from Suger, the twelfth-century abbot of Saint-Denis who wrote, “Thus, when—out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God—the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues . . .” (Suger, On the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis and Its Art Treasures, 1979). Buettner encourages readers to see collectors like Abbot Suger, Jean, duc de Berry, Clémence de Hongrie, Charles IV of Bohemia, Alfonso X of Castile and León, or Jeanne d’Evreux reading about and marveling over the gemstones they procured, illuminating acquisitive activities that pre-dated the famous collectors of the early modern period.

The third part of The Mineral and the Visual examines accounts of travel and trade networks that connected Europe with the Middle East, China, the Indian Ocean, and Africa. In addition to the difficulty of the acquisition of minerals, the great distances gems traveled to reach collectors amplified their value in medieval estimations. Buettner analyzes the letter of Prester John and demonstrates its impact on western medieval imaginations, and she contrasts the account of the travels of Marco Polo with the Mandeville author’s library-bound creation of the Livre des merveilles du monde.

Significantly, Buettner tangles with well-known exoticizing images from medieval copies of the Livre des merveilles du monde, expertly comparing the text to various illustrated interpretations of it. In these images one sees the seeds of later Orientalism, but Buettner treats the topic with the complexity it deserves. In her meticulous reading of the “dog-headed merchants” in the Livre des merveilles (Paris, BN MS fr. 2810, fol. 76v), her careful eye and analysis shine through. She parses the gestures of the depicted merchants to identify evaluating, counting, and negotiating actions—familiar, humanizing motions. She summarizes, “Instead of aggressively othering, it [the manuscript] juggles dissonant epistemological registers, walking a fine line between attraction and aversion, closeness and distance.” (188–90)

Magical, amuletic, charged, medicinal, beautiful, desired, and collected—gemstones were considered among the most valuable and potent materials of the Middle Ages. Brigitte Buettner’s groundbreaking study marshals gem-encrusted jewels, lapidary knowledge, and medieval travelers’ accounts to forge a multifaceted understanding of the power of precious stones in medieval art and culture. Richly illustrated with uncommon images, The Mineral and the Visual is exciting and compelling, illuminating the intersection of geologic and artistic worlds, and the social meanings of precious stones, acquired from near and far, in the European Middle Ages.

Mariah Proctor-Tiffany
Associate Professor, Art History, California State University, Long Beach