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Brigitte Buettner: The Mineral and the Visual. Precious Stones in Medieval Secular Culture, University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press 2022, XIV + 256 S., 35 Farb-, 55 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-0-271-09250-8, USD 99,95
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Rezension von:
Melanie N. Reiter
Kunstgeschichtliches Institut, Goethe-Universit├Ąt Frankfurt am Main
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Anna K. Grasskamp
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Melanie N. Reiter: Rezension von: Brigitte Buettner: The Mineral and the Visual. Precious Stones in Medieval Secular Culture, University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 12 [15.12.2023], URL:

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Brigitte Buettner: The Mineral and the Visual

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In recent years, the prominence of art historical research on materiality in the Middle Ages has increased and helped to develop new directions. As part of this development, art historians and museum curators have reassessed the importance of gems and their visual, material and metaphorical meanings. [1] Commonly a topic reserved for historians (most recently in German language publications such as the monograph by Kim Siebenhüner [2]), publications on the topic of gems and their semantics in the Middle Ages have rarely been published by art historians with the notable exception of Joan Evans's "Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance particularly in England" in 1976. [3] Brigitte Buettner now presents a monograph on the topic focusing on sources and illustrations from the 13th to the 14th centuries and introduces the reader to the cultural, optical and financial values of gemstones in the Middle Ages.

The value of gems has changed over time. Accordingly, the purpose of Brigitte Buettner's book is to discuss different kinds of minerals and their significance in different European settings throughout the Middle Ages (1-2). Avoiding the term "precious stone", given that it could be used and interpreted differently at different times during this period, she uses the more generic word mineral instead (12). Her sources extend beyond the usual use of theological texts, to focus on secular ones, mainly lapidaries, which she interprets from clerical and spiritual perspectives (6-8).

The book is divided into three parts. The first part examines three crowns - the Vienna Crown, possibly made for Otto I (912-973) or one of his two successors, the Crown of Castile, found in the tomb of Sancho IV and the Bohemian Crown of Charles IV (1316-1378) - describing the political and ethical meanings of the minerals with which they are encrusted. The second part considers the history and knowledge provided by a number of lapidaries. Not only are written sources and their interpretations of precious minerals investigated, but also the few remaining illustrated lapidaries such as Alfonso X's "Lapidario" (MS h-I-15, 1250-1275) and the "Breviari d'amor" (MS Harley 4940, 1350-1375). The third part highlights the geological and commercial aspects of minerals and their global context. In Europe, territories like the "New World" were often defined as exotic places and pictured as visions of Paradise on earth, full of minerals and other precious goods. Texts like the "Devisement du monde" of Marco Polo (1254-1324) and the anonymous "Letter of Prester John" relate the mineral marvels of the Mongolian court and other realistic locations to the bible and legends. In this way, the ruby became a globally admired jewel, appreciated in and outside Europe, for example by the Nicobarese inhabitants of an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, as a copy of the "Livre des merveilles" (MS fr. 2810, 1410-1412) commissioned by John the Fearless (1371-1419) illustrates.

This study is remarkable due to the wide range of written sources it employs, which enables a new interpretation of knowledge about minerals in the Middle Ages. Not only are lapidaries by the famous Albertus Magnus (1200-1280) examined, but also less familiar works such as the "Livre de Sidrac", written by an unknown author in the late 13th century, the "Livre de propriétés des choses", a French translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus's (before 1203-1272) "De proprietatibus rerum" created on the orders of Charles V of France (1338-1380) in 1372 and Jacob van Maerlant's (d. ca. 1288-1300) "Der naturen bloeme". The illustrations from royal manuscripts and lapidaries are carefully chosen and help to illustrate the culturally defined perception of minerals in the Middle Ages. The wealth of examples of illustrated objects and textual records offers new impulses for further research in this field.

The work's contribution to the understanding of the appreciation of minerals in the secular world of the Middle Ages is achieved through case studies of three well-known crowns. Brigitte Buettner introduces the reader to the Vienna Crown and the procedures of coronations, inter alia, in the Carolingian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire (24-27) to exemplify how sovereignty could be visually mediated through minerals. The numerologically defined setting of the gems and the effects of light on them creates the appearance of an aureole around the head of the wearer that Buettner calls "hyperluminosity" (29), revealing the divine status of the sovereign. In addition, Buettner suggests that the belief that the former central stone of the Vienna Crown, the Orphan Stone lost during the second half of the 14th century, conferred the status of a leader on its wearer was influenced by Islamic and Byzantine writings (27-35).

It is sometimes hard to follow the complexity of Buettner's explanations of the different virtues and various readings of a wide range of minerals. The book has a good index but the addition of a short pictorial appendix containing the most frequently mentioned stones and their common appearance would have been useful for those new to minerology. However, the reader gets a good impression of the different ways in which medieval people defined minerals beyond their physical beauty and financial value. After giving a detailed overview of the minerals themselves, the author offers perspectives that reinforce her claim that minerals played a culturally significant and powerful role in the medieval world. Based on a close examination of illustrated lapidaries, for example, Buettner convincingly revises the perspective of minerals as dead objects. Interactions between minerals and their viewers or environments were common throughout medieval lapidaries (107) and, as Buettner argues, an appreciation of apotropaic qualities extended beyond clerical and royal circles (118-125), exemplified by a scene in Giovanni Boccaccio's collection of tales in "The Decameron" (ca.1349-1353) in which a merchant believed that he would become invisible by carrying a special river stone (123-125). While Buettner's proposition that commoners possessed some mineral knowledge makes sense, it seems likely that this knowledge was mostly restricted to members of the upper class, which included merchants like the one in "The Decameron" who had the chance to imitate nobility, although more research on this would be necessary to provide detailed evidence.

The author also addresses the role of minerals as commodities traded across imperial borders. Examining the interrelations between geography, mythology and economic values (199-200), Buettner offers new insights into the ways in which the medieval economy influenced the appreciation of minerals through factors like origin and place of acquisition. Although the idea that minerals are semantically loaded and carry a range of connotations is not entirely new to art history, the author's profound expertise and fresh methodological approach offer an important stimulus to further discussions and will doubtlessly inspire future research on the material world of the Middle Ages.


[1] See for example: Manuela Beer (ed.): Magie Bergkristall, exh. cat. Museum Schnütgen, Cologne, 25 November 2022-19 March 2023, Munich 2022; or the current exhibition in the Musée de Cluny, Paris, 'A Journey into Crystal' (26 September 2023-14 January 2024): (31.10.2023).

[2] Kim Siebenhüner: Die Spur der Juwelen. Materielle Kultur und transkontinentale Verbindungen zwischen Indien und Europa in der Frühen Neuzeit, (=Ding Materialität Geschichte; Bd. 3), Köln 2018.

[3] Joan Evans: Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance particularly in England, Oxford 1976.

Melanie N. Reiter