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Diamond Symbolism: Pre-Modern and Modern Traditions


Diamond symbolism
has not remained constant but, has changed over time, "reflecting" the underlying beliefs and values of a particular age, polished diamond gemstones seem always to have been highly symbolical.

In pre-modern times, diamonds were often associated with divine realities and on that account became spiritual symbols. Evidence of this can be found in a Christian visionary tradition that dates back at least one thousand years. The tradition typically consisted of visionary experiences wherein God and/or the human soul was seen as a brilliant diamond or some other transparent crystal that looked like a diamond.

The Pre-Modern Visionary Tradition

An early example of diamond symbolism is the 11th century visions attributed to Symeon the New Theologian. Www.monachos.net/patristics. "In the way that light shines thru crystal (diamond), so He revealed Himself to me as light". [John Anthony McGuckin, The Book of Mystical Chapters, Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston (2002) pp. 166-167.] In another place he writes, "Come true light...shining crystal...whom my soul longs for still." [McGuckin, Ibid.]

A better known example of diamond symbolism is from the sixteenth century. It is provided by St. Teresa of Avila www.catholic.org/saints. She writes in her well known book Interior Castle, "I saw the soul as a castle made of a single diamond containing many rooms". [Teresa of Avila Interior Castle, (trans. E Allison Peers) Doubleday, New York, (1989) pp. 28-43.] The vision of the soul as a single diamond containing many rooms provided the framework for the entire book and she used this vision to illustrate many important points about the interior life as she had experienced it.

For example, she thought it most tragic that while God sees the soul of each person, at all times, as a brilliant diamond, we humans seldom if ever do, and "so we trouble little about preserving the souls beauty. All of our interest is centered in the setting...that is to say, in these bodies of ours." [Teresa of Avila, Ibid.]

However, because her experience was otherwise, she believed like Symeon before her, that everyone is as capable of seeing the souls brilliance "and His presence there...as is the crystal of reflecting the sun." [Teresa of Avila, Ibid.] For her, His presence there is a Divine Spouse. The soul has the appearance of a diamond because a divine marriage has taken place within it. This sacred nuptial union radiates a brilliant light that gives it (the soul) a magnetic "splendor and (irresistible) beauty". [Teresa of Avila, Ibid.]

The pre-modern diamond visionary tradition clearly saw, used and consciously experienced diamonds as spiritual symbols. In this context, diamond design was a form of sacred art.

The Modern Tradition

There is no modern visionary diamond symbolism, but there is a modern diamond tradition. It is quite different from the one described above because it reflects our more scientific way of experiencing things and the fact that millions of people can afford to wear them. Partly for these reasons the diamonds sacred symbolism of the past is notably absent. In its place are new themes whose character is mostly secular. The art of diamond design is an exclusively aesthetic art whose single purpose and focus is improving the physical appearance of the diamond.

Today, diamonds are identified with romantic love, which for the most part, is characterized as self sufficient and unrelated to divine love. Thanks to their abundance and an active long term promotional campaign, diamonds have become the primary symbol of love and its commitments leading to engagement and marriage. Curiously, both traditions have this diamond/marriage symbolism but do so with a difference that is both clear and profound. In the pre-modern view, the association is with marriage between a human soul and a divine spirit. In the modern view, at least as far as diamond symbolism is concerned, the marriage is between two individuals (souls) without reference to a sacred dimension.

Diamonds are also used for reasons unrelated to romantic love. They are often thought of as an ideal means by which one can, as the need arises, either conceal or display wealth. When set in beautiful and well designed jewelry, they are experienced as a source of great aesthetic pleasure, beautiful in themselves but also making more beautiful the physical appearance of the person wearing them.

Diamonds have also become a means by which one can express personal vanities in all of their many forms. Diamonds are preeminent symbols of wealth, success, high fashion, and a glamorous life style.

Diamonds: The Scientific Perspective


As stated, our modern diamond symbolism (traditions) "reflect" both our scientific way of looking at things and the values we hold dear. By the same token, our naturalism causes us to be unsurprised by the pre-modern association of diamonds with the spiritual world. Have we not been told that "diamonds are forever"? Diamond is one of the hardest elements and is relatively indestructible. [Eternal and unchanging are adjectives used to describe the sacred most everywhere.]

Diamond has a very high refractive index, is transparent and can be polished to an extraordinary luster. These features cause it to reflect a uniquely brilliant light.[One of the most common descriptions of God in many different religious traditions, including Christianity, is that of a uniquely brilliant light.]

The high refractive index of diamond also causes it to be very dispersive. Dispersion is a gemological term that means the breaking up of white light into its spectral components.

When cut properly, white diamonds display bright flashes of every color of the rainbow. There are almost no other gemstones that have this quality in such abundance. [The rainbow is one of the earliest images of divine blessing, and in the Christian era, color is understood as symbolizing the incarnation. (a view most famously expressed by St. Bernard of Clairvaux) www.catholic.org/saints. Invisible white light (Father) becomes visible as colored light (Son). Whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father. [Millard Miess, "Light as Form and Symbol in some Fifteenth-Century Painting", Art Bulletin, vol.27 (1945) pp. 125-81.

Although our scientific way of looking at things may help us understand why diamond appears as it does, and why it may have been used as a spiritual symbol in the past, it may not help us see diamond as seen in the pre-modern tradition. In fact, it may preclude it. To see it as seen in the visionary tradition requires that it be seen once again as a spiritual symbol. This is always challenging for the scientific disposition and may feel unnatural. A special effort may be needed to bring it about. One of the most obvious ways to do this is through the intentional use of design. Although diamond design is generally regarded as a purely aesthetic art form, there is no reason that it could not be employed as a form of sacred art. [Philip Sherrard, The Sacred in Life and Art, Denise Harvey (publisher) Evia, Greece (2004) pp.1-22.] One very recent example of this kind of intentional design is the Cross of Light Diamond.

The Cross of Light Diamond

The Cross of Light Diamond is the trademark name of a diamond that was intentionally designed as a spiritual symbol. The design features a crown that has the same number and arrangement of facets as the standard fifty eight facet round brilliant diamond. The pavilion, however, has a unique configuration of facets that are arranged in such a way as to create three cruciform images. To accommodate these images, twelve additional pavilion facets are needed, and so the total number of facets in this design is either sixty nine or eighty five depending on whether the circumference is rounded or sixteen sided. The three cruciform images require a total of sixteen facets, and it is from these sixteen cruciform facets that most of the light entering the diamond is reflected back through the crown.

The forms of the cross that make up the three images were chosen for a specific purpose. Each cross is intended to signify a slightly different spiritual reality. The three forms include the Greek cross, a form referred to as the Star cross and the well known Maltese cross. The traditional Greek cross is intended to signify divine love for the world that is sacrificial in character and involves voluntary suffering. The cross described as the Star cross is intended to symbolize nativity, and more generally, point to a divine presence throughout the world. The eight points of the Maltese cross www.orderofmalta.org.uk/cross. represent the eight beautitudes, which when internalized, point to transfiguration. It represents the divine within us.

The cross is the best known and most widely used Christian symbol. It is for this reason that cruciform images were designed into the pavilion of The Cross of Light Diamond. The images serve to reinforce the perception of the diamond as a spiritual symbol. Taken together, the three cross images symbolize an underlying spiritual reality that is present in both the physical world and in the human soul. This divine presence is to be understood as a sacred and eternal desire for relationship and union.

Spiritual Symbols: Integration and the Eye of the Soul

The modern tendency is to experience the physical and spiritual worlds as discreet entities. We generally take it for granted that this is the way things are. The pre-modern view was otherwise. Saints Teresa and Symeon saw a more beautiful diamond because they saw a beauty that was spiritual in nature, a beauty that Dostoevski later described as "the beauty that will save the world". They could look deeper into a diamond and see a light that "knows no evening", or look deeply into the soul and see a brilliant diamond reflecting that same light. [Interior Castle, Ibid. Pp 28-43]. They had a more integrated experience of what is above and what is below.

With that mysterious "single eye of the soul" they could see more holistically a light St Augustine called "the light that never changes". [Margaret Miles, "Vision", The Journal of Religion, vol. 63 (1984) pp. 125-44. They saw transcendent reality in a diamond because they could experience a diamond as a spiritual symbol. This came more naturally to them because they tended to see all physical reality as symbols that expressed spiritual reality. It is primarily through symbols that the "eye of the soul" sees. [ Richard Smoley, Inner Christianity, Shambhala Publications, Inc Boston (2002) pp. 195-225.] St Paul described the phenomenon as "clearly seeing invisible things of Him, by understanding things that are made". Rom. 1:20. Wm Blake’s famously simple sentence strikes a chord. "Everything that lives is holy."

Conclusion

In the natural world, few objects can display the brilliance and beauty of light like a well cut and polished diamond. Perhaps it is for this reason that they have been so heavily invested with symbolism. The nature of that diamond symbolism has changed because the customs and values of the culture in which they were worn has changed.. In modern times they symbolize more secular themes. In pre-modern times they symbolized more sacred themes.

Diamond symbolism need not simply reflect prevailing values and customs. It can be influenced through the intentional use of design. The Cross of Light Diamond was cited as an example that illustrates this use of design. In this illustration, other spiritual symbols were designed into the faceting pattern to augment its perception as a symbol of divine life. None of the aesthetic values that are so important to secular art were compromised in process.