Jewel Journeys – Louis VII’s Emerald and Vase

The Social Life of Jewels

When our dear Hofdames published my post about La Rusa with the title “Tiara Tales”, I remembered my old Medieval Art professor and the wonderful lessons he gave us about the social life of jewels. These gemstones had a social life, literally, they traveled all around the world with their owners and changed hands in lootings, political agreements, or weddings.

Jewels were objects of trade and consumption, a reflection of the taste and desires of society that held different values in different times. Most of them were witnesses of the lives of women who are usually forgotten in historical chronicles. Jewels have a great testimonial value and a very exciting social life.

Two excellent examples were given during that lesson and I thought you’d be interested in them.

The Journey of the Emerald

In 1154, King Louis VII of France, who probably rings a bell in your mind because he was the first husband of the great Eleanor of Aquitaine, married his second wife, Infanta Constance of Castille. She was the daughter of the very powerful King Alfonso VII of Leon and Castille and his wife, Countess Berenguela of Barcelona.

Alfonso VII was a mighty warrior and a righteous king but sadly was most famous for his messy personal life. He had twelve children with four different women, both lovers and wives. His love affairs were the talk of the European courts. Some evil nobles started to talk in whispers insinuating that Constance was not a real princess, but the daughter of a low-level courtesan. Louis VII didn’t like the slurs against his wife, obviously. The King of France decided to embark on a pilgrimage to Santiago of Compostela as an excuse to talk to his father-in-law about the problem.

Alfonso invited Louis to visit Burgos, where he waited with the noblest knights and beautiful ladies, all dressed in their fanciest clothes. Louis was delighted with the parties, banquets, games, and other entertainment. It was all topped off with a surprise visit of Alfonso’s brother-in-law, Count Ramón of Barcelona, who came with his noble entourage.

King Alfonso got up from his throne and said: From Berenguela, his sister, I got a daughter and gave her to you to marry her. I hope your eyes can see the truth now if someone has dared to suggest that her blood isn’t royal and I’m a liar. Louis, deeply touched by these words, answered: I’m blessed by the Lord because I deserved to have as a wife the daughter of such a noble king and sister of such a noble prince. Alfonso offered his son-in-law rich presents but Louis only accepted an emerald.

You could think this is a cute story but sounds a bit fake. The accounts we have are from the Archbishop of Toledo, Rodrigo Jimenez de Rada, who wrote about this event 50 years later. The Archbishop liked to embellish his stories a little, it’s true. The point is that the emerald exists and you can still see it in the Natural History Museum of Paris. But when Jimenez de Rada was a student, it was in the treasury of the Abbey of Saint-Denis. How did it get from the Abbey to the Natural History Museum?

The emerald had been a present from King Zafadola of Zaragoza to King Alfonso, who gave it to Louis VII. Louis gave it to Abbot Suger of the Basilica of Saint-Denis. The Basilica was the repository of the coronation regalia and the principal sanctuary of French Royalty.

A century later, Louis IX or Saint Louis, if you prefer, commissioned what eventually became known as the Saint Crown. When medieval kings commissioned a large piece like this one, they used to gather all the stones their ancestors collected. It was a kings’ hobby back then to make a collection of gems that looked the same size, shape, or had similar provenance, and later their sons or grandsons could commission a bigger jewel. Saint Louis had the idea of making this stunning crown and gathered all the gems his ancestors kept in different churches and palaces, including the emerald from St. Denis.

So the emerald was in St. Denis, and then it was sent to the jeweler atelier to be added to the crown, and later, the crown was moved to Saint Chapelle. Louis IX had Saint Chapelle built to house precious Christian relics, including Christ’s crown of thorns. The Saint Crown remained there until it was seized and melted down during the French revolution.  

Fortunately, we have drawings and can verify that the emerald was there, to your left in the middle of the bigger Fleur de Lys. Right below, there’s a huge spinel that king Louis VII got from his great grandmother, Queen Anne of Kiev, who was married to King Henry I. That stone is missing but, luckily, if you visit the Natural History Museum, you still can enjoy the emerald.

The Journey of the Crystal Vase

And this leads us to the second example. Eleanor of Aquitaine gave this gorgeous rock crystal vase to her new husband Louis VII, who gave it to Suger. The Abbot added the gold, silver, and precious stones and ordered the artisans to engrave the inscription: “Queen Eleanor gave this vase to King Louis. From Mitadolo to her grandfather, the King to me, and Suger to the saints. “

Mitadolo is the Latin form of the name of the first owner: Abdelmalik ibn Mustain Imad al-Dawla, who was King Zafadola of Zaragoza’s father. In 1120, Mitadolo wasn’t happy when the Almoravids threatened his kingdom and asked for help from King Alfonso I of Aragon. Alfonso called his best friend to join them on the battlefield: William IX, Duque of Aquitaine, Eleanor’s grandfather. They won, of course, and Mitadolo gave the vase to his new ally, William, as a present.

William IX gave it to Eleanor of Aquitaine when she was born, who in turn gave it to her husband in 1137. Louis gave it to Suger. The crystal rock vase came from the Sassanid Persia to the hands of the king of Zaragonza, remained in the Aquitaine ducal family for two generations, was given to the king of France, and ended up as a liturgical vessel in one of the most powerful churches of Europe. From the mausoleum of the Kings of France to the Louvre Museum, where it now resides. That’s a hectic social life for a vase.