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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Authority: Marbode of Rennes

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Lapidary is from the Latin lapidus meaning stone

     The Lapidaries were a popular genre of symbolic literature which described the marvelous properties of stones and gems and assigned symbolic meanings to them. Belief in the magical properties of stones had a very ancient origin. It was thought that precious stones had extraordinary power both medicinally and for divination and magic even with the ability of influencing God himself (Thorndike I, 776). In the Christian era this belief coincided with the universal concept that all nature was created by and reflected aspects of God. Thus in its widest sense the lapidary was an expression of the Book of Nature which with the Scriptures was the means of approaching and understanding the nature of God. The magical and medicinal symbolism of the stone coexisted with Christian symbolism.

     The earliest and most influential of the lapidaries in the modern era was the Liber lapidum, the Book of Stones, originally composed between 1061 and 1081, by Bishop Marbode of Rennes (1035-1133), a long poem describing the properties of sixty stones. It was widely popular and there were many copies and editions including fourteen printed editions, the first dating from 1511. Much of the material was taken from Etymologiae Isidore’s encyclopaedia of the early 7th century. The medicinal effect of precious stones was thought to be even greater than that of herbs and as an example we can take the sapphire which according to Marbode can counteract perspiration, ulcers and headaches, induces calm and is a useful aid to prayer. Hrabanus Maurus in the 9th century however described the sapphire as representing something much greater: the hope of eternal life.

     Christian lapidaries gave numerous illustrations of the importance attached to the symbolism of stones describing for instance the twelve stones on the breast plate of Aaron, the twelve foundation stones of the New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse, the stones associated with the Virgin Mary, with the Apostles, the Saints and the angels.

     Of special interest is a sub-genre, a series of books that describe stones set in rings. It is not a coincidence that one of the Renaissance meanings of emblem was a signet ring and that there were a number of emblem books which were illustrated by engraved stones set in rings. One of these, despite its title, was the Hieroglyphica of Fortunius Licetus of 1653 and this tradition continued on into the 19th Century with the Emblematical Devices of Samuel Fletcher from 1810 and Knight's Modern and Antique Gems of 1828. The signet ring was and is a relic from the time when the both the seal on the signet ring and the ring itself (e.g. the Bishop’s ring) was a validation of the authority of the bearer. The ring in this context is almost the last vestige of the original meaning of the Latin word decor meaning decoration and the Greek analogue kosmos both of which had a rich etymology originating in the overriding imperative of promoting and maintaining order in primitive societies (Raybould 126).

See also: Bestiaries, Herbals